A wonderful book that I finished about a week ago is the above titled novel in Iris Murdoch's large fictional output from the early fifties till the seventies or eighties. She is an amazing writer, and I'm so happy to find that I have about twenty more novels of hers waiting for me. I've only read two, "The Sea, the Sea" being the other. Both these novels are extended studies of unreliable narrators, both middle-aged men who fall in love obsessively, and late in life. Neither knows his love-object at all. The narrator of "The Sea, the Sea," decides that the little girl he grew up with is really the love of his life; he looks her up and finds she's been happily married to the same man for almost forty years, and is now an overweight, gray-haired grandmother. The narrator of "The Black Prince" is a pudgy middle-aged man who falls suddenly and irrevokably in love with his best friend's daughter, who's almost forty years younger than him.
Like the grandmother of the first book, this young woman is nothing special. This fact lends credence to the obsessive quality of these narrator's loves; they are almost totally one-sided. The grandmother doesn't return the narrator's love; in fact, she withdraws from him and wants to avoid him, thinking him predatory and dangerous. The same is true of the young girl in "The Black Prince." Both women feel that they are in danger of being suffocated, having their identities obliterated, by these men with their all-encompassing obsessions. Both women are spirited away by the narrators to lonely cottages by the sea and end up escaping, running back home to their families.
Murdoch captivates us through both novels by the puzzle of how much we can believe these narrators. Both books keep us turning pages to solve the mystery of who these men are, and how their obsessions will end? Both narrators could either be saints or monsters; they have moments when they personify both.
Murdock intensifies the question of how reliable is the narrator in the second book, the Black Prince, by first letting Bradley Pearson (BP) tell his own story, giving us his autobiography, and how his life suddenly changed by falling in love. And then we hear from the characters around him: his family and friends. They narrate their own opinions about him after he's been imprisoned, and we don't know whether their judgments of him as a monster are because he lied to us in his own narrative, or because he was formally judged as a criminal by a judge. If we believe BP's family and friends, then he's a criminal, deserving of his life-sentence. If, on the other hand, we believe BP, as I tended to do, then there's another criminal /monster in our midst, and BP is truly a saint because he has forgiven this person for framing him.
Read these amazing mysteries. They will keep you guessing till the last page, and their settings are seductive and inspiring. Despite the less than savory characters, you want to be there.