Book Review: Milligan and Murphy – Jim Murdoch

Milligan and Murphy
About Milligan and Murphy (2011)
Milligan and MurphyThere are no reasons for unreasonable things. So the protagonists of this novel are told having found themselves setting out on an adventure that they really didn’t plan. Like many people, Murdoch has always had a great affection for the two lead characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Have you ever wondered what Didi and Gogo were like when they were young and what led them to end up waiting for a man who would most likely never turn up? That’s basically the premise Murdoch set out to explore in Milligan and Murphy but that was not the question he finally answered.

Milligan and Murphy are not Didi and Gogo, nor are they Mercier and Camier, Beckett’s less-well-known “pseudo-couple”—they are very much themselves—but after an unexpected encounter on the road out of the town with an old man who has decided that searching for someone that will never be found is better than waiting for someone who will never turn up, they suddenly find themselves with big questions to answer and they’re not very good with questions, big or small.

On their journey they meet a variety of eccentric characters: a priest who in a former life was a Roman centurion, an artist who now walks with a limp after venturing into the ring with a boxing kangaroo, a former inmate of the local asylum and a bartender who might well be Old Nick himself. The question is, whereas Beckett’s characters walk round and round in circles and get nowhere, will Milligan and Murphy escape or be dragged back home by the mysterious man who has been cycling after them?

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Review: Milligan and Murphy

The title may make you think of some crime fighting duo like Holmes and Watson or Starsky and Hutch, but Milligan and Murphy is something completely different. Jim Murdoch takes two middle aged brothers living somewhat meaningless lives before they set out on an insightful journey.

Milligan and Murphy are half-brothers that live with their mother in the town of Lissoy. They do not work but enjoy drinking, women and general idleness. One day their mother sends them to O’Connor’s farm for some work. Though reluctant, the brothers do as they are told but instead of stopping off at the farm they continue on without reason and keep on going from town to town, meeting a variety of characters along the way.

Milligan and Murphy are not the most likable characters but they are harmless enough. Having reached middle age they are pondering marriage but the choice of women in Lissoy is minimal and the brothers have lived the same existence for so long that they don’t know where to begin when it comes to changing and progressing with their futures. Their mother orders them to get out of the house and find work at a local farm and the brothers comply but when they set out on their walk something changes in them. They pass the farm and keep going, never turning back, though they feel bad for their mother.

There is no purpose behind the journey in the early stages of the book. Milligan and Murphy simply avoid work that is waiting for them at the farm and continue onto the next town and then the one after that, eventually deciding they want to reach the sea. Survival is a tricky affair with the brothers having to resort to finding vegetables and killing what they can out in the wild. The brothers meet some unusual characters including a poet, a priest, a mad old woman and a tramp. Each offers their perspective on life and what it means to them but Milligan and Murphy decide they want to find their own meaning. This is a journey of self-discovery and the brothers are almost like lost children as they traverse unfamiliar towns. They contemplate going home but with the knowledge that emptiness is back in Lissoy they continue ever onwards in search of answers.

Milligan and Murphy is a well written story with interesting characters conveying their insight to our naive brothers as they continue on their journey. There is a lot of realism to the story and no miracle revelations or insights. Looking for answers and meaning in life is no easy task and this is the same for Milligan and Murphy. From such a simple event they begin this fascinating journey of discovery.

Milligan and Murphy is an absorbing read from start to finish. The brothers are interesting protagonists with nothing spectacular about them in appearance or skills. They are just two ordinary men that have lived the same empty existence for so many years they know nothing else. They could so easily have worked at the farm and stayed home with little change but instead they step away from their familiar realities in search of ultimate answers.

Verdict: 4/5

(Book source: reviewer received a copy in exchange for a fair and honest review)

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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  1. Thanks for the kind words, Dave. I've struggled a bit to get people to review this one for some reason. I grant you it doesn't summarise well but then neither did my first book which also involved a lot of wandering around. I'm bringing out some short stories next year which I hope people won't feel so intimidated by. They're all character-driven so, again, like the novels, there's not much action but I think character trumps action any day of the week.

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