January 15, 2008

Paul Torday: The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

Posted in Torday Paul at 1:43 pm by John Self

If you were living under a rock last year, you might have missed the phenomenal success of Paul Torday’s debut novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing; it was serialised on Radio 4; oh, and the small matter of featuring on the Richard & Judy list of summer reads didn’t hurt.  Torday, who was 60 when the book was published, hasn’t sat back and polished his gong, but instead next month gives us his second novel, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.  The whimsical title and jaunty cover promise more light comic satire: and any reader expecting that might be disappointed.  Me?  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

Wilberforce is a 37-year-old former software engineer, who has sold his business to pursue a life of, well, drinking.  Or as he sees it, to safeguard the inheritance of his great friend Francis Black, whose house and underground wine cellar (“the undercroft”) he bought for a million pounds.  Not bad for a hundred thousand bottles of priceless wine.

‘As he sees it’ is the key here.  We join the story in 2006 when Wilberforce is in full denial:

With, I admit, trembling hands I found the last bottle of Château Carbonnieux and opened it.  An alcoholic, which I am not and never have been, would not have sat and let it breathe for half an hour, and let it come up towards room temperature.  He would not have poured it lovingly into the large bowl of a tasting glass, to ensure the bouquet could develop properly.  Nor would he have checked the glass first for any mustiness.

No, Wilberforce is certainly not an alcoholic, it’s just that “I have made up for the woeful ignorance of the first thirty years of my life by the passion and intensity of my relationship with wine ever since.”  The scene is set for the eternal struggle:  the bottle v everything else, everything else v the bottle.  It’s such a tough one to call, isn’t it?

Torday has cleverly used the same structure as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, so the narrative presents periods of Wilberforce’s life in reverse order: first 2006, then 2004, 2003 and 2002.  We know the ending from one quarter of the way through the book, but the beauty is in what happens next – or before.  Things we thought we knew are subtly undermined, characters’ relationships are brought into focus (and smashed apart), and layer upon layer of cruel dramatic irony is applied.  Only one coincidence hinted strongly at toward the end was a step too far for me.

The success of The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce – and why it is a bold move as Torday’s follow-up to Salmon Fishing – is to make such a readable story out of pretty bleak ingredients, and from a hero who is, if not an out-and-out thoroughgoing bastard, certainly selfish for much of the time.  (Of course all these are excellent factors for any book to exhibit, in my view.)  There is some sympathy to be had though, as we see the reason for Wilberforce’s drive and position, as a boy and now a man who belongs nowhere, when “everyone else in the world was in on the secret and had a key to its iron door.”

Torday may not be a great stylist, and some of the research both on wine and the medical consequences of wine could have been a little more lightly worn, but I suspect few will care about such niceties when the pages practically turn themselves and the closing lines of the book, after such a heady brew, are so deliciously sobering.

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14 Comments »

  1. Sold! I’ll look out for it.

  2. kimbofo said,

    Sounds intriguing. The whole Salmon Fishing thing never really grabbed me — I saw it advertised everywhere, piled up in every book store I visited, but I never once picked it up. I still have *no idea* what it is about. Is it any good?

  3. John Self said,

    No idea kimbofo, I haven’t read it! I didn’t think it was my sort of thing to be honest. At least that means I was able to approach Irresistible Inheritance without prejudice, hem hem…

  4. Cornflower said,

    I haven’t read Salmon Fishing but certainly enjoyed Wilberforce. It was unusual and quite intriguing; the section in the clinic was the only weak-ish part for me, otherwise, as you say, the pages turn themselves.

  5. Jaja said,

    I live under a rock. I havn’t heard of the two books.

  6. John Self said,

    You have now!

  7. I was possibly the only person in the entire country who read Salmon Fishing and er, loathed it with a passion. Nothing worked, not the premise, the use of e mails, none of it, all seemed ridiculous to me and although I didn’t blog about it I was roundly slaughtered by others who had read it for lacking the flights of imagination the book required in believing and living your dreams beyond the realms of possibility etc so I shut up. Now I’m reading Wilberforce and wondering whether Paul Torday is actually taking us all for a bit of a ride? Is he actually laughing at us for even trying to take his books too seriously? Is he taking the rise out of the seriousness of 21st century living? There’s something not right here and I can’t quite put my finger on it, I might know by the end of the book, we’ll see.

  8. John Self said,

    Well I shall certainly look forward to your thoughts, dgr (though if they continue in that vein I guess they might never be made public!). It’s very interesting to consider how our previous experiences of an author can colour our impressions. I often wonder what I would have made of, say, Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog if it hadn’t had his name on it. Probably straight in the bin… but that’s not to suggest there’s anything emperor’s-new-clothesish about it. Simply, I think, giving our favoured authors a more generous crack of the whip can reveal aspects of the work that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I didn’t read Salmon Fishing as I didn’t expect to like it (though the comments I’d heard from trusted sources were lukewarm rather than ice cold) so I didn’t have any ‘baggage’ as it were when approaching Wilberforce. Indeed it was introduced to me as a ‘bleak’ book which is probably why I honed in on those qualities when writing about it. And I do love a bit of bleak.

    Anyway if you do end up hating it with a passion, feel free to get it off your chest here – nobody’s watching, honest! ;-)

  9. […] is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things.  I was not disappointed.  The book rings with an […]

  10. Interestingly I was approaching it with trepidation John and it was going to have to work hard to get me to the other end but I am enjoying it far more than SFITY. I just can’t help feeling Paul Torday doesn’t take himself too seriously either. I’ll vent spleen here if all else fails!

  11. Mark said,

    I’ve read both.
    Salmon fishing reminded me a bit of the old TV series Yes Prime Minister but all done by email. Sure Torday was taking the proverbial but I thought it worked.
    The Inheritance is in a different vein. No smiles to be had from any of the pages. Too be honest I think I know what Torday was trying to do but I don’t think he quite pulls it off.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks Mark – we now have views from those who didn’t read Salmon Fishing (me), those who hated it (dovegreyreader) and those who liked it (you) – interesting to see the varying responses to Wilberforce, though the sample is too small to make any sweeping conclusions I suppose…

  13. Mark said,

    Please don’t put too much weight to my opinion. I’m from the Antipodes and everything is upside down and back to front!

  14. Becky said,

    I agree with you about the coincidence at the end of the book. I chose to ignore it in my assessment of the book, kind of like when someone makes a politically incorrect comment, and everyone in the room is too polite to acknowledge it, and conversation just moves along as if it never happened.


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