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.
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.