Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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Small World by Martin Suter

19460578I wasn’t at all certain I was going to enjoy Small World by Martin Suter as, when I began reading it, I was uncertain what the story was about. Sure, there was the interesting blurb that mentions a sort of lost soul and Alzheimers, but the first few chapters gave no indication the book was going in the direction promised. But, because the writing was wonderful, the characters so well drawn, I persevered… then, bang. I couldn’t put the damn book down.

The novel centres on the affable and quite debonair Konrad, a man in his sixties whose claim to life is that he’s a close friend of the famous and fabulously rich Koch family, and one time indispensable playmate of the eldest scion, Thomas. Only, Konrad has been quite dispensable for some time now, shoved away as a caretaker in one of their many properties, this one in Greece, hardly seeing his so-called “family”, relying on their financial goodwill for support and drinking his way into his twilight years. The matriarch of the clan, Elvira Koch, would rather he was gone for good and his once bosom buddy Thomas, would be happy to forget him. When an accident in the house he is minding occurs, Konrad is forced to return to Switzerland and there his life undergoes a miraculous transformation: he falls in love.

But sadly for Konrad, the good times are not destined to last. Slowly, inexorably, he begins to lose his marvellous mind and the memories of the past, all of which have sustained him and provided great conversations in social situations. Unwilling to admit he’s struggling, it’s not until circumstances mean he can no longer deny it that Konrad’s left with no choice but to surrender to his fate.

Only, there’s one member of the Koch family who won’t allow that to happen. Determined to help Konrad keep the core of his self and the memories stored there alive, she does everything she can to provide the best medical care that her grandmother-in-law, Elivira’s, money can buy. But there are those in the Koch clan that don’t want Konrad’s memories restored, nor the truth that he has buried there to come to surface, and they’ll do anything to prevent that happening.

Part mystery, part exploration of memories and how the recollection of these, the accumulation of many of years of living construct the self and how losing them ultimately unravels identity, as well as insights into medical care and generational differences, it’s also a book that uses the past to redefine the future.

The further I plunged into the novel and the smaller Konrad’s world became, the greater the possibilities for plot, character and climax became. The way the onset and grip of Alzheimer’s is described is painful but also gripping. Konrad’s descent into the past, a part of his life that no longer has relevance in the present and his desperate and confused clinging to it is hard to read, but also provides a window into a rarely, in literature at least, discussed condition.

Konrad is wonderfully crafted and so very real. The finale is not easy to see coming and the twists and turns before the reader arrives aren’t so much the thrill the blurb promises, but are utterly compelling.

A terrific and nuanced read that makes you think in so many ways…

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The Watchers by Jon Steele

13159052I didn’t know what to expect when I began reading Book One of the Angelus Trilogy, The Watchers, by Jon Steele. Post Twilight, readers were inundated with all things vampire followed by angel-ogy novels and I found the genre quickly grew very tired and predictable. When the publishers of The Watchers invited me to review book three of this series (Way of Sorrows) in exchange for an honest review, I hesitated. I couldn’t very well read book three without first reading the others in the series and wondered if these types of books were what I wanted to invest my time in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the adage goes, so when I pointed out the problem, the publishers kindly gave me the others and I had an obligation to fulfil.

Can I just say, I am so glad I did. Far from following the tropes of this sub-genre of speculative fiction, Steele introduces an original premise, characters, and plot, wonderful locations and all packaged up in delicious and evocative writing.

The novel opens on the blood-soaked battlefields of one of the World Wars and a haunting scene between a British soldier and another takes place, raising more questions than providing answers.

The reader is then catapulted into contemporary times and placed firmly in the historical city of Lausanne in Switzerland. Here we’re introduced to Marc Rochat, the sweet-natured bell-ringer or keeper of the hours at the Gothic cathedral in the heart of town. Endearingly strange, it’s clear Marc is more than he or any one else (except a privileged few) realise. Enter Jay Harper, a man with huge chunks of his memory missing, a penchant for The History Channel and who is an insomniac. Harper apparently works as an investigator for the International Olympic Committee, only he’s not sure what it is he should be doing. Forthright, strong and brave, Jay is someone who naturally errs on the side of social justice and champions both the underdog and damsels in distress. Only, when he meets Katherine, a simply stunning American high-class hooker with chips on both shoulders, he finds a damsel but no distress that is, until she encounters a ruthless organisation who have plans not only for her, but the entire world.

The novel builds languorously, taking its time to establish characters and then motivation. Some might find this frustrating, but because it’s so well executed every word and scene has a place and you find your comprehension growing with each chapter as these only loosely connected main characters are slowly brought together and understanding dawns for them and the reader.

The climax of the novel is powerful, the dénouement rich and satisfying. Far from simply being an “angel” book, this dense and dare I say, quite literary book, is laden with philosophical observations, pop culture references, laugh-out-loud humour as well as some of the most violent scenes I’ve read in a long while. As well as drawing from other genres, such as detective noir/crime and history, this is a marvellous addition to the “angel” canon and flies high above most.

A very impressive first book that had me opening the sequel straight away. Highly recommended.

 

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