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Murdoch: journey dazzling, destination uncertain; Nuns and Soldiers, by Iris Murdoch. New York: The Viking Press. $14.95.

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Iris Murdoch is sui generis.m She can take a perfectly ordinary love triangle and turn it into an octagon. She can people a novel with enough exotic, talkative characters for 10 books. She can lead lovers through seemingly impenetrable mazes and thickets, which -- amazingly, eventually -- part to reveal the bright light of reason.

All this and more the former Oxford lecturer accomplishes, to great effect, in her 20th novel in 26 years, "Nuns and Soldiers." She sticks with her tried and true recipe, one part major romance, one part peripheral romance(s), one part horror or death, and one part philosophic duel between godlessness and good. The brew is a little weak this time, but it will still delight Murdoch fans.

The plot of "Nuns and Soldiers" thickens like this: When rich, intellectual Guy Openshaw dies in the opening chapters, he leaves behind his idiosyncratic English family (a Judeo-Christian mix) and a beautiful widow, Gertrude.

The Openshaws and their friends are agog as to what man the temporarily bereft widow will choose as a substitute for the impeccable Guy. Will she opt for Guy's old friend, the count, a Polish emigre's son who has striven to be more English than the Crown but is obsessively lonely? The count was Guy's choice. Or perhaps Gertrude will choose cousin Manfred, successful, unmarried, and the family's choice.

When Gertrude seems instead to be infatuated with young, feckless Tim Reede, an indifferent painter without a farthing, the family can't understand her lack of taste and discretion.

In the midst of Guy's loss, a lapsed nun arrives to comfort Gertrude. She is Anne Cavidge, a former college friend, who converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a nunnery. Now, 15 years later and with Guy gravely ill, she precipitately leaves the order and arrives on Gertrude's doorstep. Gertrude takes her in, calling the two of them defeated women. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anne, like the Openshaw tribe, thinks Tim Reede is inferior to Gertrude. But she bides her time like the noiseless, patient spider and becomes indispensable to Gertrude. When she has the opportunity to throw a wrench into the machinery, she does.


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