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This week, it would have been the 100th birthday of inimitable author Iris Murdoch. What better time to bring back this review of her novel, The Red and the Green?
Category: Historical fiction
Andrew: a slightly reluctant soldier in the First World War.
Pat: a member of the militant Irish Volunteers.
Millie: an eccentric and passionate woman whose home is being used to store weaponry.
The Red and the Green interrogates the lives of this troubled family as events escalate towards the Easter Rising, a pivotal moment that would change the course of Irish History.
My initial experience of The Red and The Green was one of floundering bewilderment. The almost stifling descriptions and strained social conversation, combined with a complex family tree, meant that my mind was left reeling and it took me a while to become gripped by the story.
However, I was soon intrigued by these strange, dark, eccentric characters and kept reading (with a sort of morbid curiosity) to find out what disaster they would bestow on one another next.
I mistakenly got the impression this book was about the Easter Rising in Ireland, but the event does not actually occur until past the 90% mark! Rather, the novel explores the factors at play during the build-up, from the oppression of Ireland to the need for young men to assert their courage amidst decorated soldiers of World War One.
Knowing some background could make the first part less mystifying – this article from History Learning Site is a good summary.
Nevertheless, The Red and The Green is not a dry factual representation. Its premise is to provide insight through the characters, from a multitude of viewpoints and with deep introspection. Murdoch portrays their emotions with an astute and uncompromising complexity.
The relationships between characters are intricate and enticingly rich with power struggles, self-absorption, secrecy and insecurity. I found the dialogue always seemed to have deeper layers of nuance and self-conscious analysis.
There are very few traditionally “likeable” characters in the book, but for me, Millie was the most fascinating. Initially, she seems overbearing, selfish and manipulative and is soon revealed to be deeply troubled. Her descent into something resembling madness is unnerving and I felt more pity for her than any other character.
One could argue there are some redeeming qualities, such as Pat’s love for his younger brother Cathal. Yet I found the novel unremittingly dark, with its grim combination of objectification of women, fear of intimacy, the miserably egocentric behaviour of many characters or the ruthless eclipse of quiet, gentle souls by those who are fiery (and frankly unstable!)
In particular, the undercurrents of regret, loneliness and inadequacy can be achingly sad. I think The Red and the Green is, ultimately, a novel about divisions and conflict – those between others but also those within ourselves.
Well, perhaps it was just something in my own life I was waiting for, some golden thing which never came.
Read if: you want to learn more about Irish history from a character-centric perspective.
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Have you read The Red and the Green and if so, what did you think? Which parts of the novel surprised you (I’m thinking of Millie’s more…adventurous behaviour!) or didn’t surprise you? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, I would love to hear from you!