Book Review: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch


Published in 1957, The Sandcastle is the third of Iris Murdoch’s 27 novels. For those who have yet to dip their literary toes into Murdoch’s work, I think her novels from the 1950s are a great place to start. I find most of her work is pretty accessible but these early works gently ease one into the sometimes cerebral world of Mudoch’s fiction. Contrary to my intentions, I have probably now scared more than a few of you off. You shouldn’t be.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, I think it is fair to say that most of Murdoch’s novels are really just soap operas. Sure, they may delve into politics, religion, philosophy, morals and any number of other deep thoughts, but they are at heart soap operas. And I mean this in a good way. Lots of English folk running around having affairs or near affairs with other English folk. These are the kind of affairs that, while physically consummated, most times seem to be driven much more by intellectual stimulation than physical. Some of her later work in the 70s takes on a real who’s shagging who kind of vibe. These earliest novels deal with many of the same issues but the affairs are undertaken with far more seriousness, or in a reflection of the more rigid moral standards of the time in which they were written, don’t happen at all.

The Sandcastle (finally he gets around to the book at hand) takes place at a “sound and reputable public school of the second class”. Bill Mor, a senior master at the school, and his wife Nan have a less than ideal marriage. Both seem bored and at odds about their future ambitions for themselves and their family. Their two teenage children seem equally alienated from family affection. This is the kind of family that Americans like to look at and think, “tsk, tsk, those English”. You know the kind of family where a handshake between father and son seems like a gross public display of affection. (No doubt you in England have an equally reductive stereotype of American families that you fall back on when you feel intellectually lazy.) So all this goes along as one would expect until the famous young painter Rain Carter comes to campus to paint a portrait of the former headmaster. And let me just say stuff happens. Rain and Bill…well I’m not saying…and then the son who appears to have more than a mancrush on one of his father’s friends not to mention a Maurice-ian relationship with his best pal Jimmy Carde does something that is really scandalous, but isn’t necessarily what you think it might be…but it is wife Nan who ends up defining the outcome in an unexpected way. (Her manuever at the end reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple’s short story called The Handbag.)

Hard to say if any of the characters will ever get what they want and be happy, but most readers will. So for those of you sitting on the fence about Murdoch, do you really want to continue to be that person. The one who has never read anything by Dame Iris? Grab one of these novels from the 1950s and if it helps, think of them as really smart chick-lit. Remember how saucey Kate Winslet…I mean the young Iris Murdoch was in the movie Iris? Well art imitates life.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch

  1. Laura May 29, 2011 / 7:00 am

    This was the first Murdoch I ever read, and I was inspired to read her work after seeing the movie Iris. Her writing is unique, and I like the way you described it here. This reminds me that I need to pick up another Murdoch soon.


  2. shereadsnovels May 29, 2011 / 8:22 am

    I recently read A Word Child, only the second Murdoch book I've read (the first was The Sea, The Sea). I really enjoyed it but I'd like to try one of her earlier novels next to see how they compare with the later ones.


  3. Ted May 29, 2011 / 9:40 am

    I agree, Thomas. I'm a huge Murdoch fan, and I think she combines the intellectual and plain old romantic comedy, sometimes almost farce, beautifully. Her novels are so entertaining. I'm sorry I hardly have any more of them left to enjoy. 'The Sea, The Sea' and 'The Black Prince' are two of my favorites.


  4. Ash May 29, 2011 / 11:10 am

    While your first paragraph might have scared me a bit you definitely got me with your second paragraph. I nice soap opera book would be great for this stormy day in Iowa!


  5. Amanda May 29, 2011 / 3:22 pm

    I need to read more Iris Murdoch. The summer after I graduated from college I read The Sea, The Sea and The Good Apprentice and loved both books. I also read A Severed Head (which I didn't really care for at all).


  6. Mystica May 29, 2011 / 8:48 pm

    I havent read any of her books (as yet) but I do think I picked up one and it is lying in Colombo awaiting my return. Have noted this one and hope to get to it soon.


  7. rhapsodyinbooks May 29, 2011 / 9:20 pm

    I decided that the older a writer gets, the more he or she seems to become interested in athletic and passionate scenes of sex that are no longer likely to be in that person's PDA repertoire. I have not read any of the Iris Murdoch stories, but now, hearing that Kate Winslet is in Iris, I may queue that up on Netflix and go from there!


  8. StuckInABook May 30, 2011 / 5:28 am

    This is the only Murdoch novel I've read, in that very edition too. I found it a bit of a slog, mostly because the font was so tiny (did you think that?) I thought she was great at set pieces (the car; the tower; the unveiling) but the bits in between didn't seem to have the same finesse… hmm.

    Oh, and our reductive stereotype = The Waltons. ;)


  9. Steph May 30, 2011 / 12:25 pm

    I've only read one book by Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea), and I've no idea where in her oeuvre it falls, but I was surprised at how accessible it was and I also wrote in my review that I thought it was rather like a soap opera with orphans and mysterious deaths and many love affairs. That's not to say there wasn't lots of substance as well, but the juicy bits helped move the plot along for sure!


  10. Marie May 30, 2011 / 11:04 pm

    Love your review, and love Dame Iris. Great! :-) I haven't read this one but I've read a bunch of hers and loved every one.


  11. Sandra May 31, 2011 / 3:00 am

    Enjoyed your review. I've read The Black Prince, The Sea The Sea, The Message to the Planet, The Italian Girl, and The Sandcastle, in that order. I've enjoyed them all in some ways and plan to read all of her novels when I find them.


  12. Thomas at My Porch May 31, 2011 / 9:36 am

    Laura: I was first inspired to read her work after I read the book on which the movie was based. For some reason I can't think of her husband's name. I can only think of actor Jim Broadbent.

    She Reads: I have also read A Word Child which I liked less than The Sandcastle. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorites.

    Ted: I agree on The Sea, The Sea, but I don't think I have read The Black Prince yet.

    Ash: Plus as an English major, you owe it to yourself. :)

    Amanda: She definitely has a lot more for you (and me) to explore.

    Mystica: Nice to have books waiting for you.

    Rhapsody: It is a pretty darn good film. And I love Kate Winslet.

    Simon: Maybe you are reading too much or need new spectacles. I actually found this one not to be a slog at all. And true to form I like the bits in between the set pieces. I am a background guy. The Waltons. ha!

    Steph: Without going to wiki to see where it falls, I would say that The Sea, The Sea falls in the middle of her oeuvre. I just went and checked and wasn't far off–it was the 19th of her 27 books and 24 years into her 41 years of writing novels.

    Marie: Thanks Marie.

    Sandra: For some reason The Message to the Planet scares me. I own it, but haven't tried it yet.


  13. Silsbee May 31, 2011 / 9:32 pm

    Uh-oh, I am that person. *hides in shame* ;)

    This sounds like amazing fun, and I really need to get my hands on it a.s.a.p. … and that cover is fabulous.


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