Wow, the year really seems to be flying by. I can hardly believe that it’s October already. I don’t feel like I’ve read that much this year (my current tally stands at a pretty mediocre sixteen books) – and I don’t really know why. I could point to the fact that my life is pretty busy, but then that is always going to be the case. Oh well; as the autumnal evenings draw in I’ll hopefully get to do more reading.

After finishing the truly excellent The Secret History, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to read next; I did start a couple of other things (The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht and The Periodic Table by Primo Levi) but neither of them seemed like The-Right-Book-At-The-Right-Time, if you know what I mean, so I ended up plumping for what I guessed would be a fairly easy and entertaining read: What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe.

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

I had previously read a couple of his other novels (The House of Sleep and The Rotters’ Club) both of which were fairly enjoyable, so thought I’d be fairly safe with What a Carve Up!, especially as many seem to consider it his best work.

So, what did I find?

An interesting, sprawling novel that is generally pretty good, and also pleasingly funny in several places. From what I’ve rad, Coe is something of an expert at evoking a specific time in recent British history; in The Rotters’ Club we were presented with a very believable insight into the lives of teenagers growing up in 19702 Britain; here it is Margaret Thatcher’s big-business Britain of the 1980s.

In a nutshell, the novel is a tale of one terrible, greedy, unscrupulous yet highly successful family, the Winshaws, and the effect, albeit indirectly, that their businesses and deceptions have on an everyman – in this case, a hapless writer named Michael Owen, who ends up being hired to write their family history. There is a succinct summary on the back page of my edition:

It is the 1980s and the Winshaw family are getting richer and crueller by the year.

Newspaper-columnist Hilary gets thousands for telling it like it isn’t; Henry’s turning hospitals into car parks; Roddy’s selling are in return for sex; down on the farm Dorothy’s squeezing every last pound from her livestock; Thomas is making a killing on the stock exchange; and Mark is selling arms to dictators.

The narrative contains a section for each of the members of the immoral family, as well as chapters devoted to the past and present life of Michael Owen. The approach is effective as the many seemingly disparate threads get pulled together at the novel’s end. (I don’t know if it is this narrative structure that led some to refer to the work as ‘postmodern’, but it didn’t strike me as being particularly so.)

The title is taken from a 1961 British comedy horror film starring Sid James, Kenneth Connor and Shirley Eaton, in which the cast end up trapped in a rambling Gothic mansion where a crazed killer is on the loose. It transpires that Michael saw the first half of this film when he was young, and it had a huge impact on him, so different aspects of it get referenced throughout the narrative. Then the final section of the novel actually follows this film’s plot, as all members of the Winshaw family, along with Michael and a couple of other characters, are brought back to the family estate one stormy night for the reading of their father’s will.

I wouldn’t want to give away any more about the ending, so I’ll finish with this, a fairly representative piece of comic writing. The setting is our protagonist’s flat, late at night and whilst Michael snoozes in front of his television, a mysterious tall figure, dressed all in black, lets himself in uninvited:

Proceeding into the sitting room, the stranger positioned himself next to the television set and stood a little while in impassive contemplation of Michael’s slumped, recumbent figure. When he had seen all that he wanted to see, he coughed, loudly, twice in succession.

Michael awoke with a start and brought his sleepy eyes into focus, whereupon he found himself staring at a face which would have struck terror into the heart of many a stronger man. Gaunt, misshapen and unhealthy, it expressed at once a meanness of spirit, a slowness of intelligence and, perhaps most chillingly of all, an absolute untrustworthiness. It was a face from which all marks of love, compassion, or any of those softer feelings without which no man’s character can be called complete, had been viciously erased. It had, one might have thought, a touch of madness in it. It was a face which gave out a simple, dreadful message: abandon hope, all you who look upon this face. Give up every thought of redemption, every prospect of escape. Expect nothing from me.

Shivering with disgust, Michael turned off the television, and President Bush disappeared from the screen. Then he switched on a nearby tablelamp, and looked for the first time at his visitor.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The House of Sleep or The Rotters’ Club, both also by Jonathan Coe.

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