What a Carve Up! book review

By Emma Brooks

Always on the  hunt for a good new read, I was recently in the book shop and saw a whole shelf full of books by Jonathan Coe, including The House of Sleep. I had read the book several years ago already and really enjoyed it, but had almost completely forgotten about it and certainly didn’t remember the author’s name until now. Considering I had enjoyed The House of Sleep, I figured Jonathan Coe would be a safe bet for my next novel, and having asked the vendor’s advice, I walked off with What a Carve Up.

About the author:

Jonathan Coe is an English author, originally from Worcestershire. He studied at Cambridge, and later taught at the University of Warwick. He has long been interested in literature, and his first novel was published in 1987. Since then, he has had nine novels published. He wrote What a Carve Up without having any advance from a publisher, and funded it by writing two short biographies of film stars. It was immediately an international success, and was later translated into 16 languages. It won the “Prix du meilleur livre étranger” in France in 1995.

About the story:

The story is essentially about one very powerful family in the UK, who had a lot of influence in practically every imaginable field, the Winshaws. Our main character is one Michael Owen, who has been asked to write a biography of the family by the crazy old aunt Tabitha, who is convinced that one of her brothers is responsible for the death of the other. Driven by this belief which no one else sustains, she decides to get Michael Owen to write the biography of their family, and in so doing uncover the truth.

The novel starts with us attending a Winshaw family reunion. We are with Rebecca and Mortimer, organisers of the family reunion, and follow their unease and angst about hosting the reunion itself. They are not too keen to gather the family, and tragedy soon ensues, in what almost seems like a scene out of a mystery murder movie. We soon discover that the Winshaw family is not only large, but also contains many rather unpleasant and selfish characters.

The second chapter takes us to our main protagonist Michael Owen, and it is through his narrative that we discover the lives of the Winshaws as well as his own. This is a particularity of Jonathan Coe’s, in which he mixes two different stories into alternate chapters. In one chapter we follow the Winshaws, whilst in the next we follow Michael. It creates good intrigue, but also makes you wonder for quite some time where he is going with it, and how the two stories intertwine. Will they meet? Are they aware of each other? What is the purpose of separating these stories and creating a parallel narrative? It also makes you want to skip chapters and read them all in one go so as to be able to follow the developments of one character: read all even chapters to follow Michael and all odd ones to follow the Winshaws.

But though you may be tempted to do this, don’t. Jonathan Coe’s singular style of writing is what creates the atmosphere in his books, creates the suspense and gets you hooked. Throughout the novel, we thus discover more and more unpleasant facts about the Winshaw family, as Michael describes each person in detail to us. The fascinating part is that the Winshaws are deeply embedded in the British public life and society, and so Michael also tells us all about British politics in the late 1970s and 80s. We follow closely the arrival of Margaret Thatcher to power and are acquainted with the political issues of the time, including the shaking up of the NHS and the fraught relations with the Middle East (things haven’t changed much).

Through another Winshaw member we follow developments in farming methods and how these came about, how the government has subsidised certain companies and what the results are in terms of output and produce. Through yet another family member we find out about the world of finance, and all the shoddy goings on in the background. There is no doubt that Coe’s novel is making several political statements, yet at the same time as he is basing his novel on facts from the past, we feel that we are learning something and almost witnessing the events ourselves.

The title of the book is based on a film of the same name by Pat Jackson. The film is central to the novel as characters and scenes revolve around it, and it in fact creates the scenario of the novel practically from beginning to end. Michael is obsessed with the film, and it is a constant thought in the back of his mind. And so the story of the Winshaws unfolds, as Michael tells us what he has learnt, and we discover his role in the story and how he is involved. The whole thing culminates in what one could imagine to be a life-sized Cluedo episode and a quite dramatic ending, but doesn’t leave the reader feeling dissatisfied.

The story is utterly brilliant from many different aspects, and is well worth a read. If you want to be plunged into a world where reality is mixed with dreams and fantasy, and where personal gain trumps practically all else, then this is a story for you.


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