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Review: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch


Pages: 320
Original date of publication: 1958
My edition: 2001 (Vintage Classics)
Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die
How I acquired my copy: The Strand, NYC, July 2011


The Bell is set in the lay community belonging to Imber Abbey, home to an order of sequestered nuns. The Abbey is about to get a new bell, a time-honored symbol of standing witness. At the same time, there’s a legend about the old, medieval bell, which is said to ring when death approaches. Imber Court contains a variety of complicated people: Paul Greenfield, whose wife, Dora, comes back to him after running away; Michael Meade, the head of the community, who has an unpleasant history with Nick Fawley; Nick’s sister Catherine, who is about to enter the religious order, and Toby, a teenage boy who becomes involved with Michael Meade.

Although it’s only February, I can tell that this is going to be one of my top reads for 2012. I loved every bit of this book from start to finish. Although the book is set in a religious, or semi-religious, community, this wasn’t a particularly religious book. Instead, it’s about ethics, love, and sex (about which the author was extremely candid, given that the book was published in the 1950s).

All of the characters are thoroughly messed up: Paul is selfish and thoughtless, Dora is a bit of a wet blanket, Michael continually struggles with an ethical dilemma, Nick struggles with alcoholism and guilt. For a community that’s supposedly so religious, all of these characters have vices and flaws! But that’s what makes them so interesting as characters—one wonders if Dora, for example, will ever grow a backbone. I grew to care about the characters in this novel, even though I despised a few of them. The only one who didn’t completely jump off the page for me was Catherine, who seems to be an afterthought. But Murdoch writes in very clear, descriptive prose, and other than my minor criticism, I thought that this was a fabulous novel.

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