Murdoch is known as a philosophic writer and there is not a lot of action in this book. But she knows how to pace the story to keep it entertaining. She parses out what action there is, so just when it starts to seem too talky, something startling happens to capture the reader's attention.
Charles Arrowby was a famous playwright, actor, and director who, in retirement, seeks solitude in a funky, spooky old house perched on seaside cliffs. The story is told through his journal, which contains observations on his present as well as self-serving, only sometimes honest, reminiscences on his past.
While Charles seeks to put the theater life behind him, his life is theater. When former lovers, friends old and new, and even his Buddhist cousin turn up at his isolated retreat, Charles can’t help but manipulate and bully them into being a part of his one-man show. He treats the people in his life like he treated the audiences he mused on in this passage:
The theatre is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimize an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied.
In the end, things do not work out as Charles planned, which only shows that Murdoch was much wiser than her narrator.
This is a wonderful, engrossing book, well deserving of its Booker prize.
(This review is also posted on Rose City Reader.)