BOOK REVIEW / Lemon peel and dragons: Michele Roberts on Iris Murdoch's ornate, cunning and impressive new novel; 'The Green Knight' - Iris Murdoch: Cape, 15.99 pounds

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THIS is a big, fat, entertaining novel, as rich and full and strange as one of Shakespeare's late comedies. Like these, it explores darkness as well as light, the route from sadness through self-knowledge into joy, and how loss and emptiness, if truthfully traversed, can be transformed into fullness and fertility. It is also an odd novel, telling a peculiar story of bewitchment, passion, madness and dreams. Plenty of puzzles are offered to the reader. The protagonists speak or think in question marks, and have insatiable appetites for moral speculation.

The novel's world, ostensibly the surface reality of London houses and streets, is also the interior of the human mind. Its landscapes, whether bedrooms and kitchens or waste sites and rainy parks, shine luminously. They are magically brought to life by Iris Murdoch's sensual, precise descriptions and by the scouring light of the mind. A china figure on a mantelpiece, suddenly spotted, evokes childhood experience for the brothers Lucas and Clement Graffe, while at the same time it tells us a great deal about the tricky relationship of the two, the push and pull of their inner lives, the sharp edges of their memories.

The novel's world is also one of myth, Christian, Buddhist, Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Jungian. Motifs from fairy-tale and folklore help to structure the messages of the sub-text. Characters from Arthurian legend reveal the secrets of the human heart to the baffled mortals swept up by the bewildering currents of the unconscious.

The three Anderson daughters, the novel's heroines, come straight out of a ballad: three fair maidens locked in a tower; none sure which knight or frog to wish for. Their widowed mother Louise's witchlike qualities perhaps stem from the weight of unresolved grief which makes her occasionally over-protective and possessive. She is her own tower in this respect, and she guards three Rapunzels, all with long golden hair they like to plait. There's a delightful dragon too, in the shape of a small dog called Anax, though at times he turns into Anubia, guarding the afterworld. Like all the best dragons, he doesn't want to sit on the lap of a princess forever, but helps her get free by being true to his nature and teaching her to understand hers.

The tower that the three Anderson girls share with their mother is in fact a comfortable London house. Its rooms and atmospheres are beautifully, solidly, satisfyingly evoked. But these are no ordinary teenagers. Sefton weeps as she reads Thucydides on the Peloponnesian wars; Moy has telekinetic powers and responds to the souls of stones and twists of lemon peel; Aleph, the family beauty, says things like: 'One must work, what else is there, what other meaning is there in life?' They are an enchanted group, whose haven- prison is centre stage for much of the book's action.

Regular and cherished visitors include the symbolically wounded Harvey, the fretting Clement, tortured by his brother's inexplicable absence, the guilt-ridden Bellamy, preparing for his entry into the monastic life by giving away all his possessions and donating his beloved Anax to the young women. When Lucas Graffe does reappear, everyone's doubts and worries start to focus on the stranger who stands outside their houses at night and looks in. Voyeur or thief or sex-murderer, they can't decide.

Here we meet the Lazarus motif. Lucas has killed a man, claiming he did so in self-defence, but the dead man has miraculously returned to life, thanks to the care of his doctors, despite the severe blow to his head, and returns to haunt the novel. He introduces himself as Peter Mir, a former psychoanalyst now suffering from amnesia, and seeks out Lucas to demand justice, even retribution. He is the Green Knight of the title. Iris Murdoch explains, with her characteristic generosity as a pedagogic narrator, how this figure from the medieval poem (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) is to be read. He is 'a kind of errant ambiguous moral force, like some unofficial wandering angel'. He's a catalyst who unleashes the drives of love, aggression and reparation in all around him; he is a madman, a saint, an avatar.

Thanks to his confrontation with Lucas, lengthily and bloodily resolved, the book's themes can reach their climax of love and healing, via some splendid set pieces - magnificent costume parties, hectic pilgrimages, chases across London, and touching love scenes. The latter are remarkable for their linking of sex to the sacred, wild holiness, earthy piety. No alienation here. No studied cool. Just listen to Harvey's rapture after going to bed with his lover for the first time: 'You have given me such joy, like I didn't know existed, it's like being made into an angel, you have made me into an angel, you have made me into a god, it's like being blinded by blazing happiness, like the sun coming down and down and one is exploding into the sun, oh . . . I love you forever, I worship you, I am in heaven, you are so beautiful, you are happy too, you do love me, it is wonderful for you?'

In the world according to Murdoch, people's speech is often baroque, bizarre, an indication, perhaps, of their high, restless intelligence. But sometimes I did want to giggle, as when eavesdropping on this exchange between Harvey and Aleph:

'You've got that ewige Wiederkehr feeling again.'

'Nothing so interesting.'

'So you're not a romantic any more, youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm, not even the magic Zoroaster?' . . . 'You are cut off from me today. It hurts.'

'Oh silly - it's just my old sick soul] Yet night approaches, better not to stay.'

'I feel so senseless and contingent and unmade.'

'That's simply the youth disease. Brace up, Harvey boy]'

But the Murdoch universe, in which such strange speech flourishes brave and new, is ruled by the most benevolent of narrators, all- knowing and all-seeing. This is an old-fashioned narrative position, temporarily discredited, currently making a big comeback. Lots of writers never abandoned it. In this novel it shapes a moral world guided by a superior intelligence which isn't above, however, botching the order of events somewhat, telling us facts just a bit too late to convince, hastily squeezing relevant bits of information in the pluperfect tense and in the middle of conversations. A little ruthless editorial work wouldn't have gone amiss.

Most of the time the narrator's brisk plain style is friendly, helpful, confiding, building up an intimacy with the reader only occasionally to subvert it. A benevolent, teacherly narrator, this one, who goes in for a lot of telling to save time, who can use absolutely ordinary everyday chatty speech without worrying that perhaps something more worked over mightn't be required, who patiently explains, rather than hints, to ensure we've grasped the point.

By the end, though, I was seduced by the story, the largeness of the themes, the richness of the material, sex'n'God'n'poetry'n'love 'n'the unconscious. A Romance in the fullest and most positive sense.

(Photograph omitted)