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Carving it up
by Asa Butcher
2006-12-15 10:51:17
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What a Carve Up!
Written by Jonathan Coe
Penguin Books Ltd, 1994

In 1961 Kenneth Connor, Sid James and Shirley Eaton starred in Pat Jackson’s comedy What a Carve Up! The plot is about a rich uncle who dies, but to claim any inheritance the relatives must spend the night in the ancestral home. However, it doesn’t take too long for the guests to begin dropping dead. 33 years later, Jonathan Coe used this film as the inspiration for his novel of the same name.

Throughout the novel Coe regularly returns to a particular scene from the film in which Kenneth Connor stumbles into the wrong bedroom and discovers Shirley Eaton preparing for bed. The scene becomes pivotal in building towards the book’s finale and it is certainly significant to the hero and narrator of the story, Michael Owen – not the footballer, who made his debut for Liverpool in 1997.

It may sound strange, but it took me a while to realise that the characters full name was Michael Owen because he is kept anonymous initially and then introduced by first name and finally his surname. The book begins with a Prologue, which weaves from 1942 to 1961 and narrates the story of Owen as a young boy celebrating his ninth birthday in 1961 and introduces a rich family called the Winshaws.

The book jumps to August 1990 where we begin to learn about the next generation of Winshaws and discover that Owen has become a reclusive author obsessing over the Shirley Eaton scene. Owen has been commissioned to write the history of the Winshaw family, but his research and interviews only their trail of greed, corruption and immoral doings throughout the ‘80s.

Newspaper-columnist Hilary gets thousands for telling it like it isn’t; Henry’s turning hospitals into car parks; Roddy’s selling art in return for sex; down on the farm Dorothy’s squeezing every last pound from her livestock; Thomas is making a killing on the Stock Exchange; and Mark is selling arms to dictators. There is not an ounce of moral fibre among them.

Each chapter alternates between 1990 and the biography of each the new generation of Winshaws detailing the extent of their immorality. What a Carve Up! follows the build-up to the first Gulf War, Margaret Thatcher’s carving up of national resources, the hopeless state of Britain’s National Health Service and the inhumane conditions in which livestock were being raised, such as battery hens.

Jonathan Coe’s fourth novel won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for this satirical examination of a powerful family whose power has ruined countless lives and even killed, especially Michael Owen’s own family. The novel appears to have been well researched and it is entertaining to read a fictional character’s involvement with some of the biggest events of the 1980s and 1990s, especially dealing arms to Saddam Hussein.

I was able to complete the book in a few days, so it isn’t particularly heavy going, although it will give you a satisfactory read and may make you recommend it to a friend. The one certain outcome of the book will be to make you want to watch the 1961 film upon which it is all inspired!

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