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I had to toy with finishing this book! I did not want to. Its retrospective style was fascinating and I was not confident of the end after such a long journey. I totally fell in love with it. When I finished, I photocopied the last page, just to keep a little bit of Wilberforce with me. If you enjoy stories you want to be a part of, featuring a character you want to embrace, then this is for you.
In spite of the fact that I just couldn't get to grips with the book's characters, "The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce" is one of the most memorable and striking novels I have read in years. It is the second novel by Paul Torday whose debut "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" was one of the "Richard and Judy" choices in 2007 and, having read the blurb, it was only because I had enjoyed his debut so much that I was tempted to read this book.
Wilberforce is a thirty-something young man who is drinking himself to death. When the book opens - in 2006 - he is on his way to an exclusive London restaurant where he intends to drink a £3000 bottle of Chateau Petrus - alone. Before he finishes the meal, Wilberforce is taken ill and the staff check his pockets for identification. Three days later Wilberforce wakes up at home in bed, where his friend Colin - a doctor - is keeping an eye on him. Colin tells Wilberforce that he fears that unless he takes some drastic action he will soon be dead; Wilberforce, however, insists that he is merely a wine-lover and denies being an alcoholic ("Don't confuse tasting with drinking, darling," he tells his wife). But in this, the first of four sections the book is divided into, we learn that Wilberforce is the proud owner of Caerlyon Hall in the north of England, an old Georgian house which Wilberforce inherited along with many thousands of bottles of fine wine. We also learn that Wilberforce is a widower, his wife, Catherine, having died in a car crash.
Subsequent sections of the book take the reader back to earlier years where Wilberforce recounts the story again but, in spite of the initial repetition, it soon becomes obvious that each quarter of the book - cleverly called "vintages" - will follow this pattern but the details of the book will be different according to the clarity and objectivity Wilberforce is able to muster at that time. As we go back in time we find out how this once lonely computer software designer came to fall in love with wine and find and lose a wife and some high society friends.
The subject matter is, admittedly, grim but Paul Torday writes so beautifully that you almost forget how terribly ill Wilberforce is and yearn for a glass of red instead. I had expected plenty of descriptions of the taste of the wine, of Caerlyon Hall and the surrounding countryside but this didn't materialise. Instead, Torday's skill is demonstrated by the way he portrays the strength of Wilberforce's need for a drink and the portrait of Wilberforce as a cheerless young man unable to relate to others. I didn't like Wilberforce, even as I learned more about him I still couldn't find any redeeming features. He reminded me a little of Frederick Clegg, "hero" of John Fowles's "The Collector", a young man who kidnaps an art student he is attracted to because he doesn't have the confidence to approach her any other way. The character of Wilberforce just didn't seem to me very convincing. I couldn't believe that this techno-whizz was meant to have lived such a secluded life, he comes across as a very old-fashioned character in a contemporary setting and it really doesn't work.
I also have doubts about Catherine; she came across as a very one-dimensional character and although she definitely exists within the novel, I didn't ever get the impression that she was real to Wilberforce. We never get to really know anything about Catherine and she seemed to be a character who might give a new perspective to what we know about Wilberforce.
I did like some of the other characters, though. Eck Chetwode Talbot (a cousin of Harriet for those who have read "Salmon Fishing...") and Ed Simmons are wonderfully depicted idle rich young men with nothing else to do than follow the seasonal calendar of shooting and other country pursuits. They were much more believable - and fun - than the frankly incredible Wilberforce.
The way in which Torday gradually reveals the truth about Wilberforce and how he arrived at such a precarious position is the very best aspect of the book and works perfectly with the narrator's unreliability; I found myself saying "Aha, so that's what really happened" several times as the more lucid Wilberforce explained details that had seemed unlikely when he recounted them in his more troubled state. If truth be told, had Torday told the story in a fully chronological way it would not have been much of a story at all. It is only by working backwards that we see the impact alcohol has on Wilberforce and how his perceptions change as his dependence increases.
In spite of the flaws, I found this novel utterly compelling. It's much darker than "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" but its much more complex with some subtle observations on class to provide food for thought. It may not be the perfect novel but it is highly readable and it shows that Torday has plenty of ideas. I look forward to the next.