I only discovered the existence of Rose Tremain’s Booker Prize shortlisted (in 1989), Restoration, after watching the sumptuous film of the same name starring Robert Downey Jnr, Sam Neil, Meg Ryan, Ian McKellen, Hugh Grant and a host of other famous faces which was made in 1995, and sought information about what inspired it. Lo and behold, it was an award-winning novel – and what a novel it is.
Set during the early years of Charles II’s reign, it follows the rather hedonistic pursuits of the middle-aged doctor, Robert Merivel. At first it was hard to reconcile the rather chubby, unattractive Merivel in the novel with the young and gorgeous Downey on film. Once I was able to cast his image aside, I could imagine the spoiled, well-fed and self-indulgent Merivel who, eternally curious finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the decadent court of his king.
Told from Merivel’s perspective, the book follows his introduction to court life, his “rise” to becoming a seemingly indispensible part of the king’s retinue, the order he receives to wed and the calumnies that follow. From London, to the countryside, to the fens, through plague, fire and war, from favourite to disgraced, the novel follows Merivel’s attempts to restore himself to the life he knew and loved – but which one exactly?
Beautifully written, what’s strange and compelling about this book is Merivel himself. Usually, most readers would be repelled by a narrator who is so determined to satisfy his every whim, want and base desire, regardless of who he might con, hurt or inconvenience in the process. Yet, it’s testimony to Tremain’s fantastic portrayal, the insights she gives Merivel into his own short-comings and the fact he so rarely makes excuses for his lapses in judgement or undoubtedly selfish choices, that he nonetheless is so endearing. A rogue, a drunkard, a fornicator, liar and procrastinator, Merivel revels in his body and urges in a Bacchanalian fashion that’s both appalling and utterly fascinating.
A clever man, Merivel is also fundamentally kind and, in a strange way, loyal and with an ability to accept the circumstances he finds or places himself in with reluctant equanimity, and these qualities really do shine. Philosophical and insatiably inquisitive about people, we experience the micro events of his life and the greater macro ones of his liege and kingdom, as well as the characters he encounters and who help to shape his life through his eyes – and what an original and wonderful set they are.
It’s hard to do justice to this book and the quality of the prose. It is outstanding and I found it difficult to tear myself away from the time, the events and, in the end, Merivel himself.
More sumptuous than the film with its lavish descriptions that fire the mind, and with a plot that owes as much to the picaresque as it does to the diaries of Samuel Pepys (there is something very Pepysian in Merival’s revelations and the honesty with which he explores his own faults and flaws and both revels in them and acknowledges the limitations they set), if you’re looking for a terrific novel in which to lose yourself, an accurate but exciting and thoughtful rendition of a period (it’s as much about the 1980s as it is the 1660s), and an original and beguiling protagonist to take you on the journey, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.