17 April 2024By Elizabeth WhittomeBlog

Re-reading early Murdoch: The Unicorn

A train story…

'… travelling between Paddington and Oxford, she once sat out the hour watching a hungry reader of one of her own novels turn the pages with obvious fascination, oblivious to its author sitting opposite. "Say what you like", she reflected: "I can at least tell a story."' (from Peter Conradi’s obituary of Iris in the Guardian)

I like to think that enthralling novel was The Unicorn. It could so easily have been: its first page grasps us from the opening question-and-answer dialogue and we are absolutely compelled to continue. It is immediately a kind of frame narrative: a train story itself, which begins with an arrival at a remote railway station and ends with our two narrative guides departing ‘as the express carried them away across the central plain’, leaving behind the dramatic story of Hannah Crean-Smith, the unicorn of the novel’s title.

On re-reading I am struck anew by the meticulous construction of this novel. The narrative is first focalised on Marian Taylor (one of two focuses in the novel, the other being Effingham Cooper) and we are invited in Part 1 of the novel to share her responses to the gradual unfolding of the situation. In Part 2, it’s Effingham’s turn and the parts alternate incrementally between him and Marian throughout, to Part 7. These two characters do not resemble each other save in their superficial devotion to Hannah and (perhaps selfish) desire to help her. For the reader there is a pleasure in the patterning of the two balancing and alternating perspectives which enrich the tale, whose complexity and depth is both enabled and contained by the strict composition of the narrative. In this juxtaposition, Marian is shown as active and enquiring, Effingham pompous and passive. (The ‘slumbrous power’ mentioned by his subordinate at work, Elizabeth, is mostly slumbrous!) They are both outsiders from England, and both, in terms of the class structure of the novel, ‘middle-class’, though Effingham would consider himself a cut above Marian! Both receive letters from friends back home which represent ‘ordinary’ life and enhance the strangeness of the Irish setting. Their respective names are also, in Murdoch style, suggestive ones: tailors make garments but also try to mould and modify; coopers also create objects, but coop means to shut up, even imprison.

There is, moreover, a recurrent pattern of incidents linking the backstory with the present events, for example: the flood into the valley; the attempts to free Hannah, thwarted and neutralised by Gerald (Jamesie, Marian, Pip); the two attempts by Marian to free her, the first with Effingham unsuccessful, the second with Jamesie successful; the attacks on Denis by first Alice and then Marian; the attempts to kill Peter Crean-Smith, by Hannah and then by Denis. In addition to linking past and present events, these add to the sense of a repeating rhythm, a perpetual motion machine which can only be stopped by death or departure.

But while the framing device of the train journey may suggest the mundane and the familiar, this is no ordinary tale: Hannah’s story is a novel of mystery, a kind of detective story, perhaps allegorical, encompassing the Gothic, the feudal, the ghost story, romance, the mythical, the philosophical and the religious. It has erotic insights with a contemporary cogency. And all the characters, not only Marian and Effingham, have their own views of the fascination and significance of Hannah and these are various, developed skilfully and expressed throughout the novel, constantly enlivening and challenging the reader’s responses. (I imagine our ‘hungry reader’ getting off the train and going to the station café for a cup of coffee or even lunch, sequestered in the corner to carry on reading!)

Some commentators, A.S. Byatt included, assume that the reader thinks first of Plato, Freud, Simone Weil or even Kant when they approach The Unicorn. I am sceptical of this. This is a novel, a literary work, and its evident interest in philosophical and religious matters is clearly explored through the characters and their reflections at the appropriate moments in the narrative. Its initial impact on today’s reader will still be a literary and imaginative one. It seems to me on re-reading that its roots are also very familiarly in the earlier years of the novel genre – Austen and the Brontes, Thackeray, Le Fanu, James and others. (A touch of D.H. Lawrence is present, too, in Gerald on the horse and his sexual command of Marian.) First, it is focused on a governess and it is worth exploring briefly what this means in the presentation of social class, that abiding theme of the anglophone novel. The ‘governess novel’ was a distinct genre in the Victorian age, but readers of the earlier Emma will be reminded of Jane Fairfax, elegant and accomplished, but destined for this ‘slave-trade’ fate if she cannot marry a wealthy husband. The governess of these fictions, typically to the reader a sympathetic figure, is the educated young woman of middle-class background, unmarried, who belongs in the awkward and ambiguous realm of not quite a servant but not quite gentry. From the point of view of any novel, this can be the perfect standpoint for observation and comment on the other characters, the situation, setting or the atmosphere. The 18th- or 19th-century reader might have noted the gradual acquisition of knowledge or experience on the part of this heroine, sometimes, famously in Jane Eyre, attracting her employer and being offered marriage.

Marian Taylor is clearly a governess figure: well-educated, a teacher, fleeing from an unsuccessful relationship and looking for ‘a more settled and confident social world’, ‘some kind of distinction of life which had so far eluded her’; ‘she lacked grace, she lacked style, she knew it’. She thought it was ‘more romantic’ not to announce her precise time of arrival. Her attempts to ‘read’ the situation at Gaze are at first clumsy ones, but they make her a sympathetic figure to the reader. She is our avatar: her uncertainty is our uncertainty, her disquiet is ours. She is unable at first to ‘place’ Scottow, Jamesie and Denis, and by inference neither can we.

Many commentators have alluded to Murdoch’s imaginative and detailed evocation of London as well as settings in the countryside. Here we encounter something very different: a vividly particularised Irish landscape which is not merely a backdrop but a major force in the action, its seacoast, bogs, moors and lakes impacting the action in both the backstory and the present time of the novel. Marian at first sees the countryside she has come to as grim, ‘repellent and frightening’, ‘sublime’ some say, the sea is fierce and ‘killing’; there was a ‘big storm’ some years before where the lake came down and flooded the valley. Moreover, the great house Gaze is gloomy and faded, tended by dark squinting maids in uniform and lit by lamps, with the sinister Violet Evercreech lurking intensely and promising further intimate conversations. This would verge on satirical treatment were it not for the powerful evocation of atmosphere and Marian’s unease. The scene is potentially a Gothic one, though Marian persists in her misreading of Scottow, describing him in her letter to her ex-lover Geoffrey as ‘a hunting and shooting type … who is thoroughly ordinary and seems to be a sort of bailiff-cum-family friend’. After the shock of finding no children to teach, she judges Hannah, the lady of the house, for whom she will be an educated companion, to be ‘harmless. Any experience of Gothic literature should alert the reader to the danger of judging by appearances. Marian’s awkward status within the household is maintained: ‘People were always vaguely ushering her about at Gaze. It was the nearest they came to treating her as a servant.’ Her disquiet persists, however, furthered by the bizarre haircutting ritual, with Denis a privileged priest figure, who is treated by Hannah with ‘feudal indifference’. He brings a small wounded bat, so often a creature of Gothic darkness, for Hannah to see. The latter’s unworn shoes too are mysterious, seemingly inexplicable. Several times Marian toys with the idea that Hannah is somehow ‘ill’. The reader, closely aligned with Marian, is alert for further elucidation.

Animals form an important part of the symbolic weave of the tale, frequently setting the evil of violent men against the innocent otherness of animal life. Marian cannot swim in the powerful sea but she does see a seal in its element there and finds it ‘both touching and frightening’. The animals brought by Denis from time to time are creatures often associated with damp and dark places - such as hedgehogs, snakes, and toads. These are often imaged as Gothic creatures, but he cares for them and is associated with them; Hannah calls them ‘nice creatures’ and is perceived by Marian as ‘suddenly the same helpless grotesque thing’ as the little injured bat. The salmon, associated with both Denis and Hannah from the outset, are a life force to be protected, and a religious symbol of souls yearning for God, but they need safeguarding (again by Denis) in an environment where the aggressions of hunting, shooting and fishing are much more significant than the superficial cliche of jolly country life allows. The meeting between the dog Tadg and his old master Denis is the most charming illustration of uncomplicated, empathetic love in the novel (found ‘disrespectful’ by stuffy Effingham) Later we see Scottow with hares that have been killed and the poached pheasants (‘the dead birds dripped blood’) and Pip breaking the back of the trout he has caught. The shotguns they carry may remind the reader of Chekhov’s gun in the first act of the play, making us alert for as yet undefined violence to follow in the third act. (Perhaps also suggested by the derivation of Scottow’s surname in old Norse where ‘skot’ means a shooting.) Denis’s song at the crucial musical evening, its words given to the reader in full, presents lyrically the loss and grief of a beautiful bird captured by a fowler, continuing the juxtaposition of innocent animal life and cruel captors. Hannah’s hysterical reaction to the song powerfully suggests it as an image of her situation.

Part 1 of the novel moves swiftly to Marian’s interrogation of Jamesie and Denis. What Denis reveals of Hannah’s marriage and of the religious imperatives greatly develops the reader’s sense of significance. Marian’s attraction to Scottow is evident. ‘Do not make an enemy of Gerald Scottow’, Denis advises her. But ‘That was what she was for; she was for Gerald Scottow: his adversary, his opposite angel’, she tells herself, fabricating, we may feel, a significant part for herself in this story, without fully understanding its genesis at this point, though ready to act. At this point, maintaining the structural thrust, Murdoch introduces her second narrative focus – Effingham Cooper and the group of gentry at Riders: his old philosophy tutor Max Lejour and Max’s children Pip and Alice.

Effingham is a familiar Murdoch figure: an Oxford-educated senior civil servant, an egoist whose self-regarding conceit and condescending comments persist through the novel, providing many comic moments. He is easily annoyed by others’ behaviour (that memorable phrase ‘homicidal with irritation’); he knows without bothering to read them that Pip Lejour’s poems are no good, for example, and he is often misogynistic or patronising (‘poor little Alice’, ‘the idea of every woman after him was not displeasing’, ’Perhaps all women were silly’, ‘little Marian’; he imagines exercising ‘droit de seigneur’ with Carrie the maid, and so on). His attachment to Hannah, the mysterious imprisoned beauty in the great house across the way, the ‘castle perilous’, does indeed seem like Courtly Love, part of a quest narrative, an attribution mentioned by Max, as well as Elizabeth the subordinate in his department and he himself, too. He is permitted to be Hannah’s devoted lover, but chastely at a distance, and this has gone on for four years. Any kind of consummation of his passion is soon shown to be out of the question. It is his aforementioned ‘vanity’, thinking the desirable maid Carrie at Riders will honour his request regarding the letter, which is the undoing of the plot to help Hannah escape. But he is also often a likeable character, chiefly by virtue of his self-awareness: he knows he is vain and his inability to act decisively is for the reader a sympathetic, recognisable trait. His pompous egotism provides much of the humour of the story, too. His relationship with the Lejours is unfolded and we are sympathetic to this – the awkwardness with Alice because of her longstanding devotion to him, and with Pip for his privileged but unexplained part in Hannah’s story, and with Max his old tutor whose dominance in his life was, and is, considerable. He is here in contrast with Marian – she Hannah’s teacher, he Max’s pupil, but leaving the academic life and going into the civil service has not removed his attitude of superiority towards her: ‘He talked to her with a great naturalness, as if she were a young student and he again a don’.

Continuing the skilful patterning of the plot, just as Marian has interrogated Jamesie and Denis in the previous section of the novel, Effingham is granted two expositionary dialogues here which enlighten the reader further: the first with Max and the second with Pip Lejour, philosophical and physical respectively. Max’s meditations here on Hannah’s circumstances and Effingham’s reactions are central to the reader’s appreciation of the Platonic and religious significance explored in Murdoch’s development of Hannah’s situation. This dialogue is heavy with concepts and has been criticised as a parody of a Philosophy tutorial. But Max is another familiar Murdoch character: a philosopher with an abiding interest in the idea of the Good, a Platonist, nearly at the end of a great work on the latter. He and Effingham explore Hannah’s beauty, her suffering, and the way in which she is somehow worshipped by those around her. The concept of the ‘unicorn’ as the unique and pure mythical creature which gives us the title of the novel, is made clear in their discussion. ‘The unicorn is also the image of Christ’, says Max, ‘but we have to do too with an ordinary guilty person’. (There is material to fill volumes in connection with the historical and religious significance of unicorns. We can only speculate as to what Murdoch would have made of their employment by Walt Disney or links with gay identity in the 21st century.)

Max also introduces and explains the idea of Ate, which was so important to Greek mythology: the transfer of suffering from one being to another. The victims of power must pass it on and this is evil. Only the ‘pure being’ who does not attempt to pass on suffering can defeat Ate. Is Hannah such a person? Effingham articulates our own question at this point. Max cannot answer the question and replies: ‘The truth about her may be quite other. She may just be a sort of enchantress, a Circe, a spiritual Penelope keeping her suitors spellbound and enslaved.’ The ambiguity of the Hannah figure is maintained for readers, who find themselves, like the novel’s characters, struggling to define her significance.

Readers of Murdoch’s other novels will be familiar with this concept, for example the figures of Julius and Tallis in A Fairly Honourable Defeat where the idea of Ate is, I think, more novelistically explored, shown to us rather than told. But here, Effingham’s questions and Max’s reflections on his own responses hold us securely in the mythological concepts – we do not need to turn to other sources to appreciate their import. And that bastion of solid good sense Alice Lejour interrupts them at the end of the chapter with a tray of tea and her own view of Hannah: ‘A mouse that’s trapped by a cat is quiet!’ Max has already commended Alice’s ‘simple view’ as ‘the right one’.

Considering Murdoch’s narrative handling at this point, even if we have never read the novel before, we intuit that the amateurish plan to help Hannah escape will fail. Instigated by Marion and agreed to at first rather reluctantly by Effingham, they conspire together; but synchronising watches, secret packing, putting sugar in a petrol tank: it’s all rather Enid Blyton. As they are leaving with Hannah, Alice arrives in her Austin and blocks their passage, Gerald and Jamesie return early in the Land Rover, Gerald drives Hannah back to the house, Effingham goes off in Alice’s car, Marian is left weeping and being consoled by Jamesie. The enterprise is indeed ‘over’.

The arrival of Scottow (‘the centre from whom the furies came’) in Marian’s bedroom and his sexual dominance over her is not unexpected (another scene with Lawrentian overtones) . She is cowed: ‘she could not have been more defeated if he had treated her as he had treated Jamesie.’ For the first and last time in this sequence he expresses his view of Hannah’s situation and their parts in it. His patronising discourse to Marian (‘I can see into your little mind’) claims that freedom and happiness are irrelevant and that they are all, himself included, part of a pattern, a kind of infernal machine, to which they all belong and which has absolute authority to which they must submit. There is a touch of Calvin Blick here. And the reader now has a full range of interpretations of Hannah’s significance from the various characters. Only Hannah’s own self-analysis remains.

In the next two sequences Murdoch develops the readers’ insight into characterisation in richly symbolic settings of light and darkness. (Conradi writes interestingly on the golden/black contrasts in the novel.) After the abortive escape attempt, the gilded room into which Hannah’s entourage is gathered, together with Marian, fuelled as always by whiskey, is peopled by Murdoch with heavenly figures, elongated seraphim, grouped in ‘rapt serenity’, with Gerald a ‘benevolent giant’, Hannah and Gerald ‘like the mother and father of a united family’, a sense of union, relief, ‘nothing dreadful had happened’. Such scenes in Murdoch are always dangerous illusions. Only Denis is apart, fully aware. ‘The faces of the others were gilded. Denis’s was black.’ ‘He looked strangely like some small tough partisan, irregular and lonely and full to the brim with relentless judgements and grim purposes.’

Before re-reading the novel I had always remembered the very different but equally significant symbolic scene which follows: Effingham’s fear as he falls into the boggy darkness and is confronted with the possibility of death, being sucked under. I had recalled his revelations about love and extinction of self, as a much longer episode than the actual two or three pages we have in fact. This is a tribute to the extraordinary descriptive power of the chapter. (This is also Effingham’s high point in the novel and we are entirely sympathetic to him here.) Murdoch depicts his growing awareness of his physical predicament meticulously and empathetically; he is transported gradually into the marvellous transfiguring awareness that ‘with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.’ Of course, in a superb stroke of Murdochian irony, as soon as he is rescued and in Hannah’s boudoir, restored to confidence in continuing life, his old egotistical self returns. He tries to cling on to the insight by repeating the word ‘automatically’ to the three women in the room who are tending him, appearing like the Holy Trinity, a triptych of angels or the three Graces. Their distinctive responses to his vague attempts to describe his experience are sharply characterised: Hannah sympathetic and alert to the transcendent (‘I see what you mean Effie, go on’; ‘I’m sure we are ready to try, dearest Effie’), Marian logical and rational (‘It can’t be quite as simple as that, Effingham’; ‘the trouble is until the whole world’); and Alice scornful and practical (‘that’s just a garbled version of something Father –’; ‘Effie, I think you’d better come home’). Gradually the vision afforded to him fades and his active participation in the events of the novel fades too, whilst in counterpoint, Murdoch shows Marian’s developing.

More significant here than Effingham’s temporary epiphany is that Denis, previously seen as a kind of high priest figure to Hannah, assumes in the bog scene a Christ-like status. He has earlier been associated with protecting the fish (a Christian symbol) and adored by the good dog Tadg, as well as sympathy with the animals he brings to Hannah, but here his St Francis figure is elevated into a Christlike function.

He is the rescuer, the redeemer, the saviour; modest and respectful, self-effacing. Effingham sees him as ‘a marvel’; Denis walks so lightly that his feet barely touch the ground (one recalls Christ walking on water) and his feet are ‘barely muddied’. He appears accompanied by a donkey; tells Effingham to ‘come upward, upward’, his words giving Effingham ‘a new power’. As the sun rises, and he gets out of the bog, Effingham sees it as beautiful, in a multitude of colours, not the fearful, evil place of his earlier entrapment. Denis tells him: ‘The path is firm but quite narrow … You’d better take my hand’. One cannot miss these Christian references, which reinforce the redemptive function as one of good, selfless, positive action, not temporary revelation or myth-making fantasy. No other character has yet convinced us of their self-sacrificing nature in relation to another.

Notably, from this point, Murdoch shifts the Effingham/Marian balance to reveal Marian as a more dominant protagonist. Gerald’s revelation of Peter’s return, the chaotic attempts of the others to act and think sensibly before and after Gerald’s magisterial possession of Hannah, carrying her into his room, and later announcing that he is going to take her away – these events result first in a kind of paralysis. Only Denis tries to stop him and he is assaulted and thrown down the stairs. But then, Gerald’s forceful violation of Hannah’s chaste, elevated status becomes like the breaking of a spell. Characters are released into different configurations: with firstly the truth telling by Denis about Alice’s attack on him previously; brief sexual encounters between Effingham and Alice (with Effingham’s tiresome Freudian self-analysis afterwards); Denis being seduced by Marian where Alice earlier failed; and the characteristically amusing scene between Effingham and Marian where she realises that he believes, in his usual egotistical way, that she has fallen in love with him. Then the news comes that Peter Crean-Smith is not coming back after all and that Hannah is not going away. (This news was probably a fabrication by Gerald, but it does, following the novel’s repetitive patterning, pre-figure the real arrival.)

We then see the chapter in which Marian approaches Hannah after the Gerald episode: a crucial development of the new primacy of Marian as an insightful character, elucidating to the reader her, and our, sense that Hannah’s spiritual veil has dropped; she is on equal terms with Hannah now and must ‘go on to build some how-much-altered relationship.’ She feels that Hannah is ‘an inhabitant of the same world’ as herself.’ ‘It seemed another person’. Perceptively Marian realises that Gerald wouldn’t take Hannah away. ‘Gerald had, with one quick twist, as of one manipulating a twirling rope, bound her, enslaved her, a thousand times more; and then proposed that the situation should continue.’ Marian’s insight demonstrates clearly her pre-eminence over Effingham as the reader’s avatar. Finally, in this encounter, Hannah offers Marian, and the reader, her own view of what she has been to her followers:

‘[God] is a tyrannical dream and that is what I was. I have lived on my audience, on my worshippers. I have lived by their thoughts, by your thoughts – just as you have lived by what you thought were mine. And we have deceived each other….I have battened on you like a secret vampire….I lived in your gaze like a false God. But it is the punishment of a false God to become unreal. I have become unreal.’

Dramatically, and appropriately, this chapter ends with the arrival of Pip Lejour carrying a shotgun. He too makes a bid similar to that of Marian and Effingham to take Hannah away, but with perhaps something of the additional authority of the old lover. She tells him forcefully to leave. Demonic Gerald, imaged by Murdoch as a ‘black hole’ enters and shows him the door: ‘it was the defeat of a man by a beast’. A short while later, Hannah shoots Gerald dead. ‘Hannah had brought the day of judgement upon them’.

In considering the structure of the novel after this crisis, we are aware that it moves very quickly into its final shocking stages. Peter Crean-Smith is summoned from New York, Violet locks Hannah into her room to await him and Denis goes in the car to pick Peter up from the airport. Meanwhile, Marian and Jamesie release Hannah; who, in a repetition of her earlier flight seven years previously, goes out into the night and now throws herself onto the rocks. Denis has taken the coast road to the airport but the storm has brought the waters of the lake down the valley repeating the earlier flood, washing the car away with Peter in it, though Denis escapes. Within only twenty pages near the end of the novel, we have the deaths of Gerald, Hannah and Peter, and the knowledge that Denis affords Marian that he has actively caused Peter’s death by drowning. (And Effingham in the train returning home sees a newspaper report of Pip Lejour’s death - an ‘accidental’ suicide.) All the major players have left the stage and Max Lejour has turned up at Gaze for the first time, to claim his ownership of Hannah’s estate as the sole beneficiary of her will, and, as the excluded Effingham intuits bitterly, ‘the owner[ship] of her death’. Max explains that Hannah could only afford to love what was not there – himself, her alter ego. Max will assume her physical worldly possessions, but, as we shall see, her religious and mythical functions will be assumed elsewhere.

The novel has been criticised for its hasty, even perfunctory, final sequence. But in an important sense – of expectation, of resolution - the fall of one of these protagonists must inevitably and rapidly ensnare and annihilate them all. We still have the final chapter, with Effingham’s reflections as he leaves Riders hastily, pondering Hannah’s significance, but recognising his own ‘really fat and monumental egoism’ as well as the fantasy element of the whole story. ‘It had been a fantasy of the spiritual life, a story, a tragedy. Only the spiritual life has no story and is not a tragedy’. However, unlike Marian, Effingham seems to have learned nothing personally from his experience. It has not been life-changing for him. He is looking forward to the return to his ordinary world of office and pub and dinner and gossip, we are told. At the station, completing the train story, he sees ‘little Marian Taylor’ walking to her (of course) only second-class carriage; he intends to summon her to his (of course) first class carriage for a talk about the events they have shared: ‘He was still touched by her attachment to him. She would be delighted’ This reminder of Effingham’s obtuse vanity gives closure to the ‘ordinary’ mystery story, the return of our narrative focus to ’civilisation’ and the mundane world.

But this is not, I would suggest, the real conclusion of The Unicorn. Do we accept his vision of Hannah as simply a pale death-dealing enchantress, anything but a human being? We have throughout the novel received directly and intuited a much wider range of interpretations of Hannah and her situation. She is seen as mythical by the local inhabitants; she is treated as ‘a whore and a murderess’ by fundamentalist Violet Evercreech; she is revered by Jamesie and even after her violation by Gerald Jamesie abases himself before her and insists on setting her free; Denis and Marian throw themselves at her feet at different times in a response to her queenly qualities. She calls herself a false god, evoking fantasies from other people. Effingham has, after all, always seen her somewhat abstractly through the prism of his own egoism: his tale is always more about Effingham than Hannah. Because Marian opens the mystery for us, we ourselves follow her journey through the novel and see her own development, sufficiently changed that she can reflect dispassionately on events. Released by her experiences, she will be able to dance at Geoffrey’s wedding, doubtless looking more stylish by virtue of Hannah’s osmotic influence on her. Hannah’s legacy is more significant than the gift of jewellery. Our governess may not have come into a fortune or married the master of the house, but she is a wiser woman now.

Where then do we locate our own vision of Hannah Crean-Smith? Do we have belief (creance) in the myth? This is surely the wrong question to ask. These Hannahs are all valid; none of them is exclusive; they all, Murdoch suggests, remind us of the way in which human beings cast others in distorted or embellished images of themselves; of the rewriting of history to suit individual desires; the fascination of myths and legends; perhaps even of the illusion of deity: man making gods in his own image. In this respect, though Marion ultimately calls her an egoist, Hannah’s explanation of her function is a clear-sighted one.

To me, the most significant consummation of this fascinating novel occurs in the penultimate chapter. Denis and Marian are parting and Denis reveals his involvement in Peter’s death and his sense of guilt that he did not love Hannah enough. His words show us clearly that he has accepted the sacrificial function of Hannah, but is at last stemming and containing the power of Ate which she was unable or unwilling to do.

‘I should have stayed by her and suffered with her, beside her, becoming her … I am the most guilty. The guilt passes to me. That is why I must go away by myself.’ Marian reflects: ‘He had wound it all inside himself and was taking it away. Perhaps he was bringing it, for her, for the others, to an end.’ He is, we realise, in killing Peter, finishing what Hannah tried to do seven years previously, another closure.

She watches him climbing away up the hill, carrying his favourite fish in his hand. At the last, Alice Lejour sends the dog Tadg to follow him: ‘they saw the golden dog streaking upward in pursuit of the man until both were lost to view in the saffron yellow haze near the skyline.’ Tadg – significantly – is an old Irish word for a poet, a teller of stories.

And so, Denis has assumed the deaths and the guilt and, without fantasy, without tragedy, he has taken the story away with him and become, if not the unicorn, the modest penitent; repository of the remorse and the mystery, the vessel for the reparation of sins. It is a marvellously novelistic moment. The closure of the tale is not dramatically placed in the mundane final lines of the last chapter, but tucked, in a self-effacing manner, into the penultimate chapter: the perfect marriage of theme and form.

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