Wednesday, 7 August 2013

80 Books No.63: The Bell by Iris Murdoch


Like with On Beauty, I was trying to lift my literary level with this read as well as get a clearer view of the A Level reading list. From the blurb, this seemed as though it would be slightly more worthy than some of my recent reads, probably better written and perhaps even a 'best read ever' award-winning book.

Oh. Dear. God.

I will start by being positive. The Bell is not unreadable. It's not inaccessible or written in a foreign tongue or talking about things that the ordinary lay-person would not understand. Admittedly I had to use a dictionary for some words ('rebarbative' for example) but I don't understand most of what Irvine Welsh is writing about and I really enjoyed Trainspotting and Glue. The Bell is not indecipherable like so much of these two novels.

But gosh it was tedious. The description of the novel on the back suggested it wasn't quite going to be in Dan Brown territory of constant cliff-hangers, and I can live with that; I quite like an introspective novel. There was no suggestion here that car chases were involved or somebody would be murdered on every other page. The plot was reasonably straightforward: a lay community filled with random misfits set against the arrival of a new bell for the attached abbey. It was never going to be Bad Boys.

The characters in this novel seemed to suffer from a case of the Hamlets, as they dithered and prevaricated for pages. Dora left her husband for months before the novel even began, then returned, then disappeared again for a day, and never actually spoke to him. I know this is set in a very different time from now, but she had no issue with actually walking out on her husband, something I'm sure would have been frowned upon in those days, but to actually challenge his authority was beyond her. Toby was the young ingénue (or at least the male version) who briefly dabbled in more adult things but spent most of the novel capering around like a Labrador puppy. Michael's whole life seemed to be typified by great indecision apart from the terrible decisions he made because he was incapable of connecting his brain to his trousers. The only characters who made any real decisive acts, Catherine and Nick, were denounced as crazy and not really allowed a voice in the novel. Even Paul, Dora's husband, was judged as a bully and frightened her; frankly, he was married to her so was putting up with a hell of a lot anyway.

Perhaps this novel is a case of judging it outside of its time, as with its subjects of infidelity, homosexuality, religious questioning and mental health, it was quite ahead of the game. Likely it may have held some more intrigue at the time, hence all the praise for its author. Against today's offerings though, it was slow and actually lacked the introspection I thought it would have. Dora's (in)actions were never, for instance, really explained beyond the view of another character that she was a 'bitch'. Whole chapters were concerned with her and she never came across as anything other than an airhead. Indeed, it was almost as though the narrator disliked her - something I can't exactly blame them for.

It's not that The Bell was an especially bad novel. It had a bit more depth to it than books such as Once Upon a Prince (yes, I'm still reeling from that one). It was just such a nothing that I'm gobsmacked.

I'm genuinely starting to wonder if it is me and not the books I'm reading.

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