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A Word Child by Iris Murdoch
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A Word Child (1975)

by Iris Murdoch

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Not all stories have happy endings, but I'm hard put to think of a novel whose beginning is so depressing in its particulars as "A Word Child." Hillary Burde is an unhappy, isolated man working at a low-level position in an anonymous government department. Although he's a survived an unhappy childhood and is an unlikely Oxford graduate, he's also not the kind of unhappy character you're likely to feel a lot of sympathy for. An admitted bully with a drinking problem, he's controlling, self-involved, an obsessed with a very terrible mistake he made in his past. In a day when lots of novels read like slightly fictionalized self-help books, Murdoch's decision to make Hillary as unlikable as he is seems almost a lack of courage.

The easiest reading of "A Word Child" is that it has to do with Hillary's past and how he copes with it when characters that know of his mistakes suddenly reappear in his life. I tend to think of it, however, as sort of a literary lab experiment to see what the lack of love and affection might do to a human being over time. Hillary's life isn't just unhappy, it's downright bleak, and the novel's setting -- a grey, cold foggy London winter -- fits it perfectly. He's a sort of case study in alienation, his emotions so starved that he doesn't much resemble a too many other literary characters I've met. Suffice it to say that if you find yourself identifying too closely with him, you should probably seek out professional help.

Alienation tends to be thought of as a fairly modern condition, but there are ways in which "A Word Child" is rather old fashioned: it was published, after all, right before personal computers became commonplace. All the big themes of English literature: class, love, revenge and marriage, have a big role to play, and it's slightly disorienting to see how much of the action takes place via personally delivered letters. Hillary, an "examination success story" is allowed to forget that he's always something of a curiosity when he meets with the people he used to know at Oxford. It's also, as I mentioned above, something of a classic London novel: Hillary rides the Underground obsessively and knows the city's streets better than some of its taxi drivers probably do. Much of the novel takes place in Whitehall in the very shadow of Big Ben. Even if they're not particularly interested in its thematic content, "A World Child" might find fans among Anglophiles and Londoners in exile.

Lastly, I should stress that while the world is full of unhappy people, Hillary's better educated and more articulate than most: he's the result of a bright future gone terribly awry. Murdoch's not afraid to write him, either. Her prose is dense, searching, erudite and yet perfectly flowing and balanced. I suppose it's a style that might be out of fashion now, but the book makes plain how finely the author honed her craft. It could, I suppose, be shorter, but why should it? Hillary is, by his own admission, a product of words, and, as the novel goes on, Murdoch shows him becoming increasingly aware of how his own choices -- the constraints that he has placed on his own life -- have made him and the few people he knows very unhappy. This is easy to say, but these realizations take time, so it seems appropriate, sometimes, that Murdoch take four hundred leisurely pages to do it.

In short, "A Word Child," though it offers some crumbs of absurd humor, is not a happy book about happy people. Murdoch, truth be told, never aims to give it the sort of resolution that might offer happiness as a prize to be sought. But it's a impressively wrought study in painful self-containment, a clear-eyed description of, as the saying goes, some people build for themselves. It's less overtly philosophical than I expected, but still a wholly admirable novel. I'm off to read something a bit more cheery now, thanks. ( )
2 vote TheAmpersand | Feb 27, 2017 |
Hilary Burde is the word child of the title. In school, the only thing he did really well in was languages. He excelled at words, but not in using them creatively; his interest was in learning how they worked together; the grammar, not the poetry. An abused orphan, his plan was to get a position at Oxford- which he did- and bring his sister, Crystal, to come live with him and be educated by him. But an ill-advised love affair with a married woman results in a tragedy and he finds himself working at a dead end government job, his sister supporting herself as a seamstress. He has a girlfriend, Tommy, who he treats horribly, and a few friends who tolerate him. It seems he has found his niche- or, rather, his rut- and will go on this way. Until the wronged husband of his ill-advised love affair comes to work as a higher up at the office he works at. How will he deal with this? Will he do the right thing this time around?

Burde is a thoroughly unlikable character. He’s weak, he’s narcissistic, he expects the women in his life to just orbit quietly around him until he has use for them. He has no ambition and no longer any dreams. Basically, he contributes little or nothing to the world. Despite this, Murdoch as managed to make the novel one I could not stop reading. I have to admit it was rather like watching a slow motion car crash, one where you wonder how many others he will take down with him this time.

Thankfully, the supporting cast members are more likable than Burde- well, most of them are. His office mates are pretty strange. All the supporting characters show themselves, ultimately, to have a lot more to themselves than Burde assumes- they have life, love, and volition beyond their association with him. A very good book all round, if you can take a main character who is a d**s***. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Nov 26, 2015 |
This is a bit like a cross between Dostoevsky and Diary of a nobody: Hilary is a tragic protagonist, damaged by his loveless childhood and doomed to deal with everything that happens in his life in precisely the way that will hurt him and those around him most, but he's also a Pooterish figure who has only the faintest inkling of how funny much of what happens around him really is. Murdoch delivers his story with consummate skill, so that we never quite get to the point of being led to laugh at him in a nasty way for the things he can't help, but we are always left uncomfortably aware of how close we are to the line. Very nicely done: top-of-the-range mid-period Murdoch. ( )
  thorold | Oct 19, 2012 |
My favorite by by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, our narrator. The book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. Hilary has tried to establish order and routine in his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 9, 2012 |
This is definitely my favourite of the Iris Murdoch book that I have so far read for the Murdoch a month challenge. The characters are fascinating complex beings, the story so finely plotted and yet it is a very readable Murdoch, a page turner. I loved the descriptions on London in this one, London is a feature of IM's work, but with this novel there were a lot of references to places I knew in London (I go there very seldom.)I also enjoyed Hilary's "Office life" - with the bickering and gossip and desk moving. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Nov 22, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140081534, Paperback)

After years of obscurity in a Bayswater flat, Oxford graduate Hilary Burde ha the opportunity to atone for a grievous offense which he committed twenty ye earlier.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:38 -0400)

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