The Sea, The Sea (1978)
by Iris Murdoch
The Sea, The Sea was the 1978 Booker Prize winner and perhaps it was a bit of a make up for the fact that the Booker Prize hadn't even started until Murdoch was 15 novels deep into her career. It is also the sixth novel to make the first version of the 1001 Books list and the last, chronologically speaking. My take on Murdoch is that she is the last of the line of 20th century English authors that begins, more or less, with D.H. Lawrence- writers who managed to animate the relationship between the sexes, both physically and mentally, while simultaneously maintaining their direct connection to English authors of the 19th century.
Thus, with Murdoch, you often get a combination of familiar "English novel" elements: Childless, upper middle class English men and women experiencing a spiritual crisis of one sort of another, falling in and out of love, drinking and screwing. In The Sea, The Sea, the narrator/protagonist is Charles Arrowby, a distinguished figure in the world of London theater, recently retired and moved to an isolated English sea-side village, where he rents an eccentric home perched at the top of a cliff, overlooking the sea.
His contemplative mood is interrupted when he discovers, quite by chance, that his first love, the "one who got away" is living nearby, with her husband. He rapidly becomes obsessed with renewing their relationship, despite all evidence that a renewal of the prior relationship is impossible. Other characters pop in and out as Arrowby's increasingly desperate machinations result in an actual kidnapping of his beloved and worse.
In a career of vividly drawn characters, Charles Arrowby, with his egomania and theatrical background, stands out, as does his "Old India Hand" cousin, James, whose experiences with Eastern mysticism during his time in the British army play an increasingly important role as events take the course. He also introduces the touch of science fiction/fantasy, that Murdoch has played with in prior books, elevating The Sea, The Sea out of a strictly realist perspective.