It’s a mark of the rapid rise of Jonathan Coe’s “What A Carve Up!” to contemporary classic status that there are so many editions in print.
Or if you prefer something saucier there’s the one below!
That faintly purplish edition shows a scene from the classic 1961’s comic horror movie starring Sid James, Kenneth Connor and, an at times déshabillée, Shirley Eaton The movie giving the title to and forming the structural backbone of Coe’s novel. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the movie – the book stands on its own two feet. But, if you do watch the movie, you’ll realise just how much Coe borrows from it.
Not that this in any way detracts from the novel. The camp gothic elements of the movie are exaggerated, transformed by Coe’s pen into the real horror in 1980’s Britain as a whole dynasty of immoral, greedy Thatcherites are – er – carved up! I won’t say too much about the methods of dispatch – suffice to say they are highly symbolic.
But there I am jumping right to the end – let’s start at the beginning. Michael Owen, a depressed writer with problems of his own, is commissioned by Tabitha Winshaw to chronicle the history of her family. In chapters which are interspered with Michael’s own story, we witness the unscrupulousness of the banker, the farmer, the politician, the journalist, the art dealer, the arms dealer. Each “trade” represented by a different Winshaw – in true iron lady tradition, the ladies more reprobate than the gents The satire is savage and, as a result, the characters become caricatures. Again it doesn’t matter – it’s far too entertaining and shocking to worry about “bagatelles” such as rounded-out characterisation.
More empathy is evoked by Fiona, Michael’s neighbour, who manages to infiltrate the loneliness in which Michael has swaddled himself, only to be betrayed by the incompetence of the NHS. This is a moving story serving to highlight the carving up of one of the great British institutions.
Throw in a war-time story of spying and fraternal betrayal, a mad aunt, Michael’s estrangement from his mother. Stir in a hommage to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and the aforementioned British movie. Sprinkle with a soupçon of hilarity including the trials and errors of writing a sex scene and, I promise, the funniest occurence of the word “biro” you’re ever likely to read. While you may be forgiven for thinking that this is just a hodge-podge of mad ideas flying off in all directions, I advise you to go with the flow and wonder at the skill – or should that read “brio” – with which Coe pulls it all together in the final third.
1994 Winner John Rhys Llewellyn Prize
Published in the USA as “The Winshaw Legacy” – a title which obviously loses all playful connections to the movie. However, it’s a title that is more apt than would have appeared in 1995. 18 years since Thatcher left office, UK businesses and institutions remain as corrupt, greedy and as carved-up as ever. Could Coe’s political satire be taking on a timeless aspect?