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Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!

Almost, but not quite. It's easy to read even at 500 pages and even though narrative drive has to be sustained across forward and back time shifts and changes of viewpoint which give many of the numerous characters their say. There is a great deal of "post-modern" allusion and inter-textuality, most obviously to the Gothic novel, Ealing movies, popular culture more generally.

The basic story line is simple: a novelist (Jonathan Coe / Michael Owen) accepts a lucrative commission to write a family history for a vanity press. The Winshaws are an odious bunch and they are used by Coe/Owen to exemplify all that is Nasty with the Nasty Party (Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives). The problem here is that they are gothic-horror-B-movie nasty and so fail to evoke any real repugnance. They are comically repugnant - though the book is not particularly funny. I was surprised to see one reviewer quoted on the cover using the word "hilarious". It isn't.

The members of the family hate each other with a vengeance and even the commission to write the history comes from a member of the family with a very big grudge to settle. As the narrative unfolds, we discover that Michael Owen has not been selected by chance. But when he too is killed off at the end, well, in this reader it evoked no emotion. The death is too contrived, too obviously crafted to create a parallelism with an earlier death.

Yet Jonathan Coe can write heartfelt and moving prose. This he does in the harrowing chapter in which Michael Owen's (platonic) lover Fiona dies at the hands of the NHS. She would probably have died anyway; the NHS just contrives the death to be faster and more gruesome. The writing here is very powerful and owes nothing to Ealing comedies. It skewers its political target more effectively than any of the cardboard cut-out portraits of the Winshaws.

He succeeds in a similar way in passages set in Iraq (Winshaw arms dealing with Saddam). Here the scenes are also Gothic and horrible - but in this case we know that they are for real - and Coe acknowledges his sources for them at the end. The effect is quite different from that one gets from the depiction of horrible family murders later in the book. These remain trapped in the frame of Professor Plum in the Library with the lead pipe.

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