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Something Special is a short story by the acclaimed novelist, Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). The story was published in an anthology in Japan in the 1950s and was rediscovered after the author's death. It is the only short story that Iris Murdoch ever wrote for publication.
Set in Dublin in the late 1950s it tells the story of a young woman called Yvonne and her boyfriend, Sam. Yvonne's mother and uncle can't understand her reluctance to marry Sam, but Yvonne insists he's "nothing special" and yearns for more than just a comfortable married life. Later, the couple have an eventful night out together. Without giving away what happens, all I shall say is that the evening's events change the course of Yvonne's life, showing how ironically the things that are 'nothing special' can become 'something special' due to the impact they have and the consequences they make you face up to.
It's quite a poignant tale, which makes you reflect on the subject of hopes and dreams and our struggles to reconcile them with reality. It also captures very well the complexity of human relationships and the difficulty of being true to ourselves in the face of pressures from others around us.
I found Yvonne's character quite intriguing. When I read this book I kept changing my mind about whether I thought she was a strong, independent character or a submissive one. I came to the conclusion that it was through acknowledging her weaknesses and limitations that Yvonne became stronger and through accepting disappointment she grew closer to contentment, which I found an interesting paradox. It seemed to me that Yvonne's dreams of 'something special' just made her more vulnerable in a world that wasn't receptive to those dreams.
When I read this story it made me feel that it could've made an excellent novel if developed. As a short story, however, it feels very sketchy, like a snapshot of Yvonne's life. It left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I found myself wondering how Yvonne would be affected by the decision she comes to during this story. I wanted to know how things might progress further down the line - even a few days down the line, because all the events in this story take place in the space of a few hours.
The flip side of this is that it's a story that does set your mind working as you consider the various possibilities. Will Yvonne be happy? Has she made a good choice? How will she feel in the morning, or in a year, or ten years from now? The reader is left to decide and whether you think the outcome will be happy or sad will probably depend on the mood you are in when you read it. If you like stories with definite answers, you may find this unsatisfying. However, if you like the idea of being left to draw your own conclusions, you will be more appreciative of the writing style.
I have read this short story several times now and each time I have pondered on a different interpretation. It's the sort of story that reveals a little more each time you read it and I like this aspect of it very much.
It's true to say it is not exactly an uplifting read and is downright depressing at times. It made me ponder what life must have been like for many women in the 1950s, approaching the topic of marriage with a kind of resignation amidst the pressure upon them to settle down and feel grateful if someone was willing to take them on.
Yvonne's uncle sums up the attitudes when he tells her - "You're not Greta Garbo and you're lucky there's a young fellow after you at all", which isn't exactly a confidence-booster. When Yvonne says to her mother and her uncle - "Can't I live my life as I please? Since it's the only thing I have", she could speak for a whole generation of pre-feminist women, forced to put their dreams aside and be sensible and traditional. The clash between the older and younger generation is portrayed in the relationship between Yvonne, her mother and her uncle and the atmosphere of pent-up tension comes across throughout the story.
I enjoyed the descriptions of Dublin, which was brought vividly to life with references to trams rattling by, walking towards O'Connell Bridge and along the quays, the River Liffey flowing past, the hubbub of crowded pubs, the mail boat going out, and the smell of Guinness. The dialect was authentic too.
Because this was a short story that was over so quickly, I didn't have time to get to know the characters or watch them grow. As a result, I didn't really start to care for the characters in the way I might have done if it had been a full-length novel. I felt disconnected, almost like I was people-watching from a distance. However, Iris Murdoch does have the knack of communicating a lot about a character in just a few words. The opening description of Yvonne, sitting on a chair, rocking it back and forth violently in the shop run by her uncle and mother expresses Yvonne's restlessness and spirited character from the start.
The story is nicely crafted with some lovely phrasing and it might be suitable for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to read full-length novels but would appreciate an introduction to Iris Murdoch's style. It may also be of interest to Murdoch fans who want to find out what her early literary efforts were like. It touches on some key themes in her work, such as relationships, unconscious morality and dilemmas, without developing them in the sort of depth you will find in her novels.
I love the sensory descriptions, with attention paid not only to sights but to smells and sounds and touch. Some of the language has a poetic quality which adds romantic and sentimental touches to the story, which contrast strikingly with the moments of realism. There is a lovely anti-romantic moment where the couple linger by the river as the moon rises above the roof tops. Sam puts his arm around Yvonne's waist but she snaps at him - "You'll get your death with the smell of drains here."
The black and white illustrations are a pleasant inclusion. They complement the text and help build the atmosphere, taking the reader along the dark, moonlit streets where Sam and Yvonne walk on their night out. I was charmed by the 1950s outfits and hairstyles and you can tell so much about the characters from looking at their facial expressions and the way they stand. The pictures have a shadowy, melancholy quality to them.
I came across this book in my local library. I am somewhat alarmed to see it being sold by sellers on Amazon for £7.99 (although used copies can be obtained for a few pence.) £7.99 seems extortionate for just one short story that is only 51 pages long and can be read in less than half an hour. The hyped up blurb on the back of the book is typical of the way critics gush about the early works of established writers. I am convinced that if this short story had been submitted as an eBook by a first time, unknown writer, it wouldn't have been so well received.
Criticisms aside, it is an unusual read and romantic in a haunting, thought-provoking kind of way. It might make a nice gift to someone who wants a quick read to take on a journey, someone who will appreciate the forlorn note it strikes and who is prepared to let their imagination fill in some of the gaps it leaves. It would certainly make an alternative Valentine's gift as it looks at relationships in a way that is far removed from hearts and flowers clichés.
However, I can appreciate that it would seem frustrating and confusing to some because of the vagueness of the ending. For that reason, I don't feel this book is special enough to receive more than a 3 star rating.