BOOK REVIEW / Our revels are unending

JACKSON'S DILEMMA by Iris Murdoch Chatto pounds 15.99

IN A beautiful and ancient country house, a group of friends gathers the night before a wedding. It is a much-wanted wedding and each guest has his or her own reason for wishing it, for celebrating it.

After supper, the guests wander out into the grounds, into the warm darkness. For a moment, a starry, benevolent chaos seems to reign. People murmur to one another, wander away. Hopeful of shared inclinations, someone risks a kiss. Back inside, in the light, a letter has been delivered. Marian, the bride, has jilted the groom, and each person's life will be crucially diverted by this decision.

Iris Murdoch almost always writes about people for whom money and work are an irrelevance and whose morality seems, despite an apparently contemporary setting, to belong in the leisurely security of the Fifties. Mostly, she gets away with it. Mostly, her characters' intricate and sophisticated emotional lives more than make up for an absence of - what? - the gas bill, the double-buggy, the shopping mall.

If you love her work - and I do - you know the rules. There is a country house, close (significantly) to water, and there are London flats with garages and terraces. There's a girl who's boyish, a boy who's girlish, at least one middle-aged, artistic man of wobbly sexuality, and an individual whose past no one knows.

The plot - and plenty of it - hinges on love, past secrets and blunders, religion, magic, philosophy. No one really works (here they ruminate on Heidegger or Maimonides) and there are endless taxis, telephones (answered and unanswered), hastily scribbled notes and consequent misunderstandings.

There's usually a drowning or near-drowning or both, and people with names like Tuan and Cantor stand on bridges, stare at water and greet each other with tears, exclamations of pain and sudden declarations of love: passionate love which often emerges from the chrysalis of intense dislike. But there's also a largeness, a sense - if not quite of God - of a universe arranged by an unseen hand, where sleep, faith and death (and sometimes marriage) are the great fixers.

Iris Murdoch is an extraordinarily, deliberately intelligent writer, whose capacity to chart a character's every shift of feeling, to lend credibility to the incredible (across six or seven pages of precise emotional cerebration) is startling, Normally we believe, forgive, adore her. Why, in Jackson's Dilemma, do I for once find this impossible?

Elements of this novel are spell-binding. It's a work of brilliance and shadow, about the search for stability, light and love in a darkly unsteady world. We begin in the dark. As the story unfolds, the gloom fills up with light and a sweet, Shakespearean-comic momentum builds. Men and women declare and reject love, move around one another like faltering satellites. Only Jackson - Puck and Caliban incarnate - can intervene.

Jackson is Benet's "servant". No one is sure where he came from, why he's there. Maybe he was magicked into being by the late Uncle Tim - a Prospero whose dead, benevolent presence suffuses the book. Maybe he's just an angel. And of course, Benet (middle-aged, concerned, seemingly sexless) does not want him, runs away, yet finally comes to understand what it is that he requires from him.

A loaded, intriguingly confusing presence, Jackson is at once "a huge dark slash, a dark thing", and also the light to Benet's monotonous dusk. This contrast might be beguiling, were Benet himself at all beguiling, but he is devoid of life, purpose, journey - a kind, bland individual whose dance with Jackson is unilluminating.

The other characters' melodramatic responses to Marian's decision not to marry become increasingly garish. They coerce, weep and rant about nothing in particular and, just for once, so much inherited wealth and leisure begins to grate. You catch yourself wondering why they don't just pull themselves together.

The novel lacks sufficient internal movement or believable explanation to render the characters or the dilemmas sympathetic. Is it significant that this is Murdoch's slenderest volume for some time? Scenes run out of energy, dialogue peters out; you wait hopefully, nothing happens. The resulting farce is tightly plotted, but simply not enough.

It's all rather sad in a novel crammed, nevertheless, with seductive pleasures. It can stun with heavenly, enchanting passages, pull you in deep, regardless of annoying inconsistencies (a character's surname changes inexplicably halfway through the book; a "devout Jew" has apparently married a Presbyterian). Here, you remind yourself, is a writer who knows how to build a dream within a dream and then shake the reader awake gently, selectively. Maybe we should hold on to that.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?