Like a lot of Iris Murdoch novels we have a cast of characters circulating both a place (this time a rectory) and a figure of some power, presence, or influence over that place: here, the rector Carel. Carel is aging, possibly falling prey to mental illness, which either explains or seeks to excuse his moral and religious failings. Religous failings: he’s becomes increasingly convinced/aware that there is no god. Normally, you might guess that this would make it difficult to be a rector, but he feels a kind of conviction to his calling and decides that if he’s convinced of the absence of god, he will preach the gospel of no god. Moral failings in that he uses his role as rector, his intelligence, his power, and his will to seduce and carry on a longterm affair with the cleaning woman in rectory, Pattie, a woman of Irish and West Indian descent, who own mental deficiency she’s convinced of, despite evidence to the contrary.
The novel expands out from this central locus, and for all the influence that Carel has on the narrative, he’s barely in it, except in terms of weight. Pattie befriends and falls in love with Yevgeny, a Russian refugee who works as a factotum. Yevgeny (Eugene) has a son of debased morals who might need money for college, or an abortion, or for gambling or to exercise his will, just depending on who he’s talking to. He spends much of the novel deciding between seducing Muriel, Carel’s daughter, who falls for Yevgeny and resents Pattie’s presence in both of the important men in her life’s life. And we have Marcus, educator and brother to Carel, who is writing the most milquetoast philosophy primer while also trying to save his brother.
Like most Iris Murdoch novels, there’s deep insight into the nastiness and pettiness of many human affairs, a cataloging of pain and cruelty, and an earnest interest in motivations for all of these things.