Hilary Burde is the word child of the title. In school, the only thing he did really well in was languages. He excelled at words, but not in using them creatively; his interest was in learning how they worked together; the grammar, not the poetry. An abused orphan, his plan was to get a position at Oxford- which he did- and bring his sister, Crystal, to come live with him and be educated by him. But an ill-advised love affair with a married woman results in a tragedy and he finds himself working at a dead end government job, his sister supporting herself as a seamstress. He has a girlfriend, Tommy, who he treats horribly, and a few friends who tolerate him. It seems he has found his niche- or, rather, his rut- and will go on this way. Until the wronged husband of his ill-advised love affair comes to work as a higher up at the office he works at. How will he deal with this? Will he do the right thing this time around?
Burde is a thoroughly unlikable character. He’s weak, he’s narcissistic, he expects the women in his life to just orbit quietly around him until he has use for them. He has no ambition and no longer any dreams. Basically, he contributes little or nothing to the world. Despite this, Murdoch as managed to make the novel one I could not stop reading. I have to admit it was rather like watching a slow motion car crash, one where you wonder how many others he will take down with him this time.
Thankfully, the supporting cast members are more likable than Burde- well, most of them are. His office mates are pretty strange. All the supporting characters show themselves, ultimately, to have a lot more to themselves than Burde assumes- they have life, love, and volition beyond their association with him. A very good book all round, if you can take a main character who is a d**s***.