I was not entirely sure as to whether this book would qualify as Irish literature, but I decided to include it nevertheless. Even though Iris Murdoch is mostly considered a British author, she was born in Ireland from Irish parents, and this book is also set in Ireland, so I guess this makes it an eligible choice.
The Virago Vintage Classics edition that I read started with an introduction by Stephen Medcalf, who was Iris Murdoch’s very own student. As he mentions in his introductory essay, The Unicorn is “set between two famous landmarks on the west coast of Ireland, the cliffs of Moher and the limestone country of the Burren”. I have never been to Ireland myself (yet), but merely looking at pictures of these places just to have the image in my head when I read the story, made me think that Ireland was the perfect place for such a gothic story to unravel.
The book begins with one of the main characters, Marian Taylor, who has been given the job of a governess in a remotely placed castle in the west coast of Ireland. There, Marian comes to meet and hear about many different people, including the ones also living in the castle but also some strange-acting neighbours.
Marian’s life at the castle is pretty uneventful at the beginning, until suddenly she starts noticing that the people surrounding her may not actually be as innocent as they look. The castle itself, as well as her employer Hannah’s life turns into a complete mystery in which everyone seems to secretly participate and Marian decides to look for answers to all the questions posed before her. Hannah never leaves the castle and she appears to be a prisoner inside her own property, while her husband is enigmatically away for a long period of time. As Marian gets more and more deeply involved into this mystery, she (and the reader alongside her) begins doubting the verisimilitude of the events that occur to her surroundings and to herself as well.
I have to admit that The Unicorn is a wonderfully written novel. I had not yet had the opportunity to read any of Murdoch’s other works prior to this one, and it made me really intrigued about her other stories as well. However, it did take me quite some time until I fully got into the story. I loved the ominous atmosphere and the landscape descriptions at the beginning, but the novel felt pretty repetitive and redundant to me from that point on. I had been re-reading Jane Eyre before starting this novel, so it felt very much like yet another copy of this gothic romance type.
However, after a few chapters, the events took such a sudden turn, that it made me really curious to see how the author would end up wrapping things up and finishing this strangely enchanting tale. Luckily, it did not end up being similar to the other gothic novels I initially had in mind. I liked how the novel was separated into seven parts, and in each part the narrator’s voice would be interchangeable between Marian and Effingham Cooper, a visitor of the people that live nearby, who is in love with Hannah. Each narrator presents the events under their own circumstances, and therefore the lines between who is lying and who is not are becoming rather blurred.
After reading the entire novel, and especially upon reading the introduction, I am certain this novel contained much deeper philosophical meanings and symbolisms than I could understand. I did not particularly like how the characters fell in love with each other in a flash and forgot about it when the tiniest distraction came along. It might have been done in purpose, to serve the establishing of the magical and mystical atmposhere, since it looked like everyone acted while being under some sort of spell, but I found it rather unnecessary. Perhaps I should come back to this book some time in the future, when I will be able to notice more in it than in my first reading.