Picks and Pans Review: The Book and the Brotherhood

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Iris Murdoch

This hefty volume contains a slew of fascinating characters, more twists of plot than a dime-store romance and enough philosophical digressions to make a reader feel virtuous as well as entranced—just the sort of delicious crowdedness that has marked Murdoch's previous 22 novels. Here the action begins in midsummer at Oxford, where the main players, many of them friends since undergrad days, have gathered for a reunion. There is Gerard Hemshaw, a retired civil servant yearning to accomplish greater things, and Rose Curtland, who has loved him, hopelessly, for decades. There are Duncan and Jean Cambus, a seemingly happily married pair; Jenkin Riderhood, a soulful schoolmaster; and Tamar Hernshaw, Gerard's waiflike niece. There is also David Crimond, a misanthropic Marxist. Crimond nearly destroyed the Cambus marriage once, and now he makes off with Jean. That sets in motion a chain of events that includes an abortion, a car crash, a duel, several misplaced declarations of love and a death. Though Murdoch's prose can be overwrought ("Her heart heaved within her as if it were some huge thing which she had swallowed and wished to regurgitate"), she is a master at thumbnail characterizations: "Gulliver, who thought himself good-looking, was tall and dark and slim, with...a thin slightly hooked nose which he had come to terms with when someone called it aquiline." She also poses a weighty central question: Is a life most virtuously spent working for the betterment of humanity, or is it enough, as Rose puts it, to "have some fun, do some work, love a few people and try to be good?" The question is never fully resolved, but readers should have a delightful time pondering it. Dame Iris has done it again. (Viking, $ 19.95)

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