Review: What a Carve Up! & Atonement

With Handbagged on the West End, Charles Moore’s biography shortlisted for the Orwell prize and an upcoming collection of short stories by Hilary Mantel, depictions of Margaret Thatcher and her pivotal political influence continue to thrive across the arts. But any appreciation of Thatcherism in literature, a sub-genre which has flourished since the reign of the so-called Iron Lady, should begin with Jonathan Coe’s seminal novel What a Carve Up! (1994). This vigorous satire of 1980s Britain packs a punch that is scathing, rip-roaring and utterly innovative in its own right.

carveupPublished twenty years ago on this day, What a Carve Up! chronicles the political and social corruptions of Thatcherite society as embodied by its central family: the gloriously villainous Winshaws. A young novelist called Michael Owen has been mysteriously commissioned to write their family history and expose the loathsome, ruthless greed of their various professional practices. Populist columnist Hilary pioneers the future of tabloid trash, her brother Roddy deals art in order to prey on women, and voyeuristic cousin Thomas is an investment banker who profits proudly from others’ misfortune; Dorothy subjects her farm animals to torturous procedures for maximum revenue, Henry is a back-stabbing Thatcherite politician, and Mark deals arms to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Coe’s novel is an outrageous balance of revulsion and entertainment. A number of reviewers have criticised his characters as too ‘cardboard cutout’ to be taken seriously, but this is not a dry, didactic text; What a Carve Up! is a mad and macabre comedy (perhaps even farce), and the Winshaws are explicitly designed to highlight the various vices and abuses of power that have become so systematic within our society. In the dying words of patriarch Mortimer Winshaw, ‘There comes a point where greed and madness become practically indistinguishable. And there comes another point, where the willingness to tolerate greed, and to live alongside it, and even to encourage it, becomes a sort of madness too.’

What is most remarkable about the novel is the ingenuity of its composition. We begin with a Gothic horror tale in the midst of World War Two, which sets an elusive backdrop to a family saga which then jumps to the 1990s. These present-day sketches of the Winshaws, written as a sort of third-person ‘docu-narrative’, are interspersed with autobiographical accounts of the novel’s narrator, Michael. His project culminates in a camp Agatha Christie-style gathering at the family seat in Yorkshire, where secrets are unravelled and bodies drop like flies. This patchwork of intermingling genres is crafted with a skill that is seamless and an effect that is unique.

What a Carve Up! will have you howling with laughter and recoiling in abhorrence; no work of literature has ever had such an effect on me. Bursting with vivacity and a fantastic cast of characters, I can’t help thinking what an invariably excellent TV adaptation it would make. It is the greatest novel I have read over the past year. *****

On the topic of adaptations, it’s a general rule I have that all such major film features – Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby – must be put on hold until I’ve read them first. Alas with Atonement, the 2007 blockbuster featuring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy reached me before Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel (2001). Nevertheless, upon finally reading the book, I became quickly immersed in a story so deeply embedded in its metanarrative devices that it offered a very new reading experience.

atonementThe main action of Atonement takes place on a hot summer’s day in 1935. Briony Tallis, an imaginative and slightly precocious young girl of thirteen, has written a play ahead of the homecoming of her brother. In a break from rehearsals with her cousins, she catches a sight out of her window that perplexes her: Cecilia, her older sister, is diving naked into a fountain to retrieve a broken vase in front of the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner. Not mature enough to understand the sexual blossoming between the pair, Briony wildly misinterprets the scene before her and eventually tells a lie which leaves the lovers torn tragically apart forever. The novel concludes in 1999 when Briony, now a successful novelist, rewrites a happy resolution to the story she herself thwarted, thus atoning for the past through her fiction.

If there is a recurring shape to the structure of Ian McEwan’s novels, it is the shape of an hourglass. Seemingly isolated circumstances simultaneously converge towards a chance incident – in this novel, towards a few spoken words – and distort the entire bearings of collective futures. Atonement in particular captures this sense of the smallness and inevitability of the life one eventually lives: a seemingly habitual summer afternoon is suddenly suspended in time as the nexus of one’s past and present world. The prose is rich and insightful, and would fully merit a re-read.

Ultimately is the final twist, the realisation that Robbie and Cecilia’s reconciliation can only exist in the realms of a fictional world, that elevates Atonement to a level of sublime. The destructive and then restorative power of the imagination to rewrite reality is a strong, refreshing premise for a novel. As the older Briony reflects, ‘how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. No atonement for God, or novelists…’. This central dilemma sparks broader questions for the reader.

Frank Kermode has written that ‘no contemporary of [McEwan] has shown such passion dedication to the art of the novel’. Indeed, Atonement is a work that manages to discover a new potential within the novel’s form; the film can convey only one of its many stories. ****

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