What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

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‘What, so we were great then and we’re shit now?’

The quote comes from The Big Chill but it might as well serve as a one-line précis of Jonathan Coe’s best-known and wildly over-praised novel, What A Carve Up! The Winshaws, an upper class Yorkshire dynasty, are a terrible shower. Michael Owen, a writer obsessed with film (specifically with the 1960s comedy-thriller which gives the novel its name), has been hired to pen their family history. His research reveals that, through their unearned privilege and massive greed, they have a controlling stake in everyone’s lives: “Every penny of the Winshaw fortune…could be said to have derived, by some route or other, from the shameless exploitation of persons weaker then themselves.” The family utilises any opportunity – from the slave trade to selling arms to Saddam Hussein – for profit. Thus Dorothy embraces the battery farming industry. Hilary is a ubiquitous, poisonous, tabloid columnist. Then there’s Henry (backstabbing politician, wedded to rabid NHS privatisation); Roddy (philistine art dealer); and Thomas (venal banker). Mad aunt Tabitha bankrolls Michael’s biography from her sanitorium. The Winshaws, you see, are cartoonish cyphers – responsible for everything that is bad in Britain by the mid-1990s, when the novel was written: from companies closing down and workers sacked, to patients dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. Michael’s father loses his job then gets fat on processed food; Michael’s sort-of girlfriend falls ill and finds it impossible to be treated. Coe is just about conscious of his responsibility to the adults reading the book – a sensible presumption given that not all of them can be fully paid-up members of the Workers Revolutionary Party. So he has fun with Grand Guignol too, knocking off horror classics such as The Ghoul, nicking much of And Then There Were None wholesale*, and interspersing it all with the Falklands War, the first Gulf War and the Second World War, which does have some bearing on subsequent events. Coe is not the subtlest of writers but this is intricately plotted and highly readable. And you don’t often get Yuri Gagarin, Margaret Thatcher and Sid James in the same package.

*Not to mention sharing a good visual joke with Evil Dead 2…

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