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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sandcastle

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase The Sandcastle

Title: The Sandcastle
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957
Length: 313 pages
Availability: The Sandcastle - US
The Sandcastle - UK
The Sandcastle - Canada
The Sandcastle - India
Le château de sable - France
Die Sandburg - Deutschland
El castillo de arena - España

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, but almost conventional -- practically Murdoch-lite

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/5/1957 Charles Poore
Time . 10/6/1957 .
TLS . 10/5/1957 David Tylden-Wright

  From the Reviews:
  • "Miss Murdoch makes use of such devices as chance meetings, a two-timing politician, a mysterious gypsy who is a harbinger of trouble, and the reading of letters by persons who were decidedly not meant to read them, with as much assurance as if she had invented those devices herself. No other novelist now writing in England except Elizabeth Bowen can match her in her ability to draw characters completely and then show what happens when their sandcastles are swept by the tides in the affairs of women and men." - Charles Poore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The incomprehensible love affair that grows between the two is made plausible by Iris Murdoch's great tact with words. It is only when this serious novelist (she is a tutor in philosophy at Oxford's St. Anne's College) intrudes witchcraft into the plot that she seems to forget the difference between the reality of magic and the magic of reality." - Time

  • "If in her style of writing and her approach to her subject Miss Murdoch has discarded much of the fantasy of her previous books some of it seems nevertheless to have crept into her characters, and also into the course of her story." - David Tylden-Wright, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sandcastle centers on William (Bill) Mor, the 'Second Master' (and teacher of history and some Latin) at the St Bride's school where he's worked for the past decade or so. He didn't become headmaster when the position opened up because he doesn't even have the "nominal faith of an Anglican variety" required for the position, but he stands at a crossroads now, as he has been asked to stand for the local (safe) Labour M.P. seat. His wife, Nan, is opposed -- it means less money and offers no security, and they have their teenage children to think of (both a bit on the dull side). But Mor's future is even further complicated when Rain Carter -- a painter hired to paint a portrait of the former headmaster -- comes on the scene. Mor finds himself drawn to the free-spirited artist, and thus faces yet another difficult choice: to continue in his rather dreary marriage, or to go off on grand new adventures with the artist.
       Mor is not a very decisive character. Strong-willed and independent-minded Nan needs careful handling, especially in company, but Mor can handle that; it's only when it comes to acting decisively himself that he generally gets all muddled. Indeed, he's rarely clear about any specific course of action -- most obviously in vacillating endlessly about running for M.P., but also in most of his other actions (though at least once or twice he does actually take action -- or at least make the right suggestion for others to take action).
       That Mor is never going to get it quite right seems clear from the start, as Murdoch has his first encounter with Rain be one in which he at first completely overlooks her, and, a short while later, "blundered after her". Soon enough what begins as a relatively harmless outing with Rain leads to him entangling himself in a mess of unnecessary excuses and over-complicated cover stories, as this is a relationship clearly doomed to be messy.
       The Sandcastle is, in comparison to most of Murdoch's work, a surprisingly conventional story. Her sharp characters and dialogue, and a bit of philosophizing, clearly mark it as her work, but the story itself is rather simple -- though there are a few odd embellishments (such as a touch of witchcraft -- excused in part by it being fourteen-year-old Felicity who dabbles in the dark art (having: "realized at an early age that she must be psychic")).
       There are several extended set pieces of characters literally dangling on a precipice, an innocent, almost comic version involving Rain and Mor and her fancy automobile prefiguring a much darker later episode. Meanwhile, Mor rather haplessly hems and haws between the familiar comfort of his marriage and family -- Nan is no dear, but he is used to her ways and there's comfort in that familiarity -- and his passion for the artist. Of course, everything winds up being more or less out of his control, with even his meddling kids throwing him off any of the courses he tries to take.
       It's the characters that make the book, of course. Nan's no-nonsense approach is a particularly nice contrast to Mor -- "don't be so utterly spineless and dreary", she tells him, the most spineless and dreariest of men ... -- though of course she doesn't ever make it easy for him. Typically, when Mor wants to make a clean breast of his infatuation she retorts:

You talk as if you were confessing the secrets of your heart to someone who wanted to hear them.
       Yes, that's the kind of marriage they have .....
       Everything does eventually settle into place -- though Mor has little say in it, even whether he'll stand for M.P. ("I suppose so", he resignedly admits) -- though, of course, beneath the surface everything remains entirely unsettled: this is a Murdoch novel, after all, and even at its most conventional she won't allow for a conventional happy ending, even when it has all the appearances of being just that.
       The writing is good, and occasionally sparkles, and there is the usual cast of unusual and opinionated characters, which makes for decent good fun along the way. Not too heavy, not too deep, it's fine entertainment -- but, for Murdoch, feels a bit thin.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2011

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The Sandcastle: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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