The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch is, like so much of the author’s work, about extreme love. By extreme love I mean a love that will not obey the rules, love that puts people in emotional and sometimes physical danger. Like her novels The Sea, The Sea and An Unofficial Rose the main characters in The Black Prince all give in to an impulse to love, an impulse that should have been ignored, that most people would ignore. Giving in to that impulse and the consequences of love are the major subjects of Iris Murdoch’s work.
In The Black Prince, the narrator Bradley Pearson, is living a quiet, uneventful life on his own long after a bitter divorce. One day, in a very funny farcical scene, just about everyone Bradley knows arrives at his flat either wanting to leave their current spouse or wanting to renew their relationship with Bradley. His sister has left her husband, his ex-wife is back in town and her brother has come to warn him, his long time friends Arnold and Rachel are fighting and each wants him on their side while their daughter Julian desperately wants his advice because she wants to be serious writer like Bradley, not a hack novelist like her father. Bradley wants them all to go away and basically tells them so in so many words.
There are several major twists in the novel; in the first Bradley, age 58, suddenly and completely falls in love with Julian, the teenage daughter of his friends Arnold and Rachel. He has just endured a failed attempt at an affair with Rachel after years with no serious interest in women, so this sudden attraction to Julian is a surprise. When it happens he simply falls face down on his hall carpet and stays there for several hours, unable to move. This is where an Iris Murdoch novel becomes extreme and where, in my opinion, her writing is bravest. She does not shy away from such inappropriate attractions, nor does she move her plots towards comfortable resolutions. She is interested in finding out just what would happen in such cases if the characters involved really went all out and made every attempt to get the love they want. Bradley abandons his sister who needs him, the friends who want his attention, and runs off with Julian. What follows is both very comic and tragic. Love has it’s price, is a recurring message in Iris Murdoch, but it can also be worth the price it exacts.
What makes The Black Prince even more interesting than the typical Iris Murdoch book is that its narrator, Bradley Pearson, is wholly unreliable. He is a very funny curmudgeon in the first third of the book, but the reader tends to believe his opinions about the other characters and to sympathize with him. Once he fell in love with Julian, it became clear to me that I could not trust anything Bradley was saying about any of the characters actions and even about his own motives. The comic tone of the book’s first part remains, though Bradley is less and less aware of it as the novel continues.
On the last page of the novel there is jaw-dropping plot twist that I will not reveal it here, but it is satisfying enough to make some of the books tougher sections worth reading, and it does fulfil the promise of the back cover which promised and ending that would “cast a shifting perspective on all that has gone before.” The book closes with postscripts written by each of the surviving characters and the editor who may or may not be Bradley Pearson. Together these each call into question most of what Bradley has told us and much of what we have come to suspect about him.
Sections of The Black Prince are a bit of a slog to get through. Bradley is a fun narrator, but one of his problems is that he is in love with his own voice. He is trying to prove his innocence by writing the novel and Ms. Murdoch gives him free reign. This makes for a long read, but the ending is completely worth the effort. I’m giving The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch four out of five stars. If you only read one Iris Murdoch book in your life, read The Sea, The Sea, but if you read two, consider giving The Black Prince a try.
Since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have not read another book by Iris Murdoch. There are lots of them; I really should read another. I loved the three that I did read.
Looking at this review now, some eight years later, I’m a bit embarrassed to see myself talking like an expert on Murdoch. I only read three of her novels, for heaven’s sake–I can I presume to know what her writing is like the way I do. I hope I don’t do that anymore.