I've been meaning to read more of Iris Murdoch's work for quite a while -- not only is she one of the most highly-regarded British writers, she was a major influence on one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt. And what better to read than The Book and the Brotherhood, one of her best? Set in the 80s in England, it opens with a long, richly detailed scene at an Oxford reunion that introduces the characters and sets in motion the events of the rest of the novel.
This is a highly intelligent, deeply-felt novel, full of ideas, descriptions, and emotions. The perspective shifts from character to character, giving us an opportunity to inhabit the mind of each one -- his or her hopes, disappointments, strengths, and weaknesses. All characters, that is, except for one who is the catalyst, directly or indirectly, for everything that happens. Fittingly, we never truly understand him, leaving us to wonder if he is a fraud, a madman, or a true believer. Instead we see the expectations the others have placed on him, and how it reflects their own understanding of who they are. The result is a smart, honest, moving read about the need to find one's place in the world.