The Philosopher’s Pupil, by author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, was first published in 1983. It follows the affairs and arguments within the English spa town of Ennistone (‘N’s town’ – so named by the anonymous narrator, ‘N’), particularly those of the McCaffrey family. At the centre of this family is George: reviled and revered in equal measure by the family and town members, he is also the pupil to which the title alludes. George craves absolution from the elusive Rozanov, the teacher to whom he feels irrevocably tied, but who seems to have little regard for him in return.

The novel explores with great clarity and insight the nature of the bonds we make as human beings, and what we consider to make someone ‘good’ or ‘bad’. As all of Murdoch’s writings, it challenges how we draw lines and how we write people off through the use of deeply complicated and flawed characters, which are laid out carefully through the story until they come alive as real people. So real, in fact, that there seems to be one or two carefully placed gaps, in which the character of each character swims, just out of reach, but somehow all the more realistic because of it. The best example of this is perhaps ‘N’, a character who we are never able to meet directly, despite having been told the entire story through their perspective, and who is always at the forefront of the text; bringing you up to speed, offering titbits, and making you question your view and theirs.

Murdoch is a master of her craft, and The Philosopher’s Pupil is no exception to this. It’s beautifully written, wonderfully pithy, sculpted and memorable, and she uses language in a way which absorbs, provokes thought and allows you to feel a real affinity with each of the characters. The Philosopher’s Pupil makes for an excellent read (as do any of her books), and is perfect for battening down the hatches in January to get some good reading done.