What a Carve Up!, by Jonathan Coe

I first read this book a couple of years ago, and had been looking forward to re-reading it ever since. Well, it was worth the wait.

This is a wonderful book. The story concerns Michael Owen, a writer, who's been commissioned to write a history of the dreadful Winshaw family. The book's title is a reference to the eponymous film which Michael saw as a child. Scenes from the film continue to haunt him, and resonate through the whole story.

The narrative alternates between episodes in Michael's life and passages (from his book?) which describe individual Winshaws. It becomes increasingly clear that the Winshaw family is directly and indirectly responsible for many of the problems Michael has encountered through his life, and Michael's (and the reader's) slow realisation of this is one of the things that keeps you turning back to earlier passages in order to re-read them in the light of new discoveries. Like "House of Sleep", there are many threads running through the book and it's difficult to summarise in a way that comes anywhere near doing justice to the novel's construction.

In one sense, the book is an angry diatribe against Thatcherism - much of the story takes place at the end of Thatcher's reign - and the Winshaws themselves are stereotypically selfish, greedy and unscrupulous: their professions include merchant banker, arms dealer, tabloid columnist and factory farmer. It's quite satisfying to see them portrayed in such an unflattering light, while at the same time frustrating that they appear to prosper.

But it's also a romance. It's not just about Michael's love for Fiona, the girl who's his next-door neighbour, but about the wistful lost-ness of his past, which we get flashbacks to: the seeming innocence of these episodes is challenged as we gradually discover more about their significance to the overall story.

And it's also very funny, laugh-out-loud in places.

The only weak point in the book is the end sequence: I can see why he did it this way, and I'm not sure how else it could have ended satisfactorily, but I don't feel it worked as well as the rest of the book. But this is a very minor flaw in a fantastic novel, and I look forward to reading it again.

Reading Quite Ugly One Morning reminded me of this book, and when I came across the audiobook in the library I checked and found I'd not read it for eight years(!), so thought it would be time to re-read it again.

I still like the book, although I'm a bit more conscious of how contrived the structure is - so many bits of plot rely on coincidence which I can see would irritate Tim. But perhaps carefully crafted is a better way to think of it, and I certainly do feel that Coe put a lot of time and thought into this.

I hadn't realised quite how unreliable, or naive, a narrator Michael is. Perhaps it's because I knew the story fairly well, but I kept noticing things in the book that completely passed him by.

Maybe it's because the audiobook was read by the same person who read The Rotters' Club but I did feel that Michael in this book felt very like Ben in that book: there are a couple of episodes which are very similar. One is where Michael's walking home with Fiona, and she pulls him towards her and puts her mouth to his ear. He braces himself for some delicious intimacy, but she says "I think we're being followed". And then when he's in the train watching Alice read the novel he wrote, and he knows she's getting to a really funny bit, but she just turns the page with no apparent reaction. Both recall Cicely listening to the music tape that Ben made, and querying the noise made by the cat.

Completed : 23-Feb-2004

Completed : 03-Jan-2012 (audiobook)

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