This was my third five-star read so far this year; I don’t hand out that rating very easily, and when I do, it’s because the book has surpassed any expectation I may have had, made me want to start again right from the beginning as soon as I’d finished it, and opened up a universe which was somehow magical to me. As far as expectations go, they were pretty high with this novel, as it first came to my attention because it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I had read very positive reviews for it, and it had been on my wishlist for a long time. My first book by Rose Tremain, which was among my favourites of 2013, was Music & Silence, and there’s a certain quality about her writing, or about the way she tells her stories, or about the characters she creates, or all of these put together, which I find very exciting. With these two books, I was willing to follow her wherever she wanted to take me with the very first words.
This story is set in the England of 1665 and is told as a first person account by one Robert Merivel, who relates the events as they are happening, probably in the form of a personal journal. All the events take place over the course of approximately one year, and it’s a year filled to the brim for Merivel in the England of the Restoration. Introduced by his father, a glovemaker to the King, Young Merivel, a student in medicine, meets Charles II for the first time and immediately falls under his spell, so that when King Charles asks Merivel to save one of his dying dogs (his beloved spaniels of course), Merivel jumps at the chance to be part of the inner circle of Whitehall Palace and successfully cures the dog, mainly by doing nothing (as I recall he drinks too much, falls asleep in his cozy palace bed, and leaves the dog to work out his own business). Merivel further captures the king’s favour with his comical antics—he is a rather ugly man and uncouth in his manners, liking to amuse the court with his frequent farts, among other things—and the king comes to affectionately call him his Fool, which delights Merivel, as he’s willing to do anything to be in the king’s favour for pure love of the man. For his loyalty and services, he is given a grand estate, and immediately sets about decorating his large house in an effusion of baroque colours, in the most vivid hues, then finding the practice of medicine distasteful to him, takes an interest in painting and music, and indeed he observes all around him with an artist’s eye. One day the King tells Robert that he would like him to wed one of his mistresses, Celia Clemens, simply because the king likes his last name and likes to think of his mistress as the future Mrs Merivel. The one condition he sets it that the marriage must not be consummated, and so enamoured is Merivel with his monarch that he immediately accepts an arrangement that few others would willingly comply with. Merivel is a great lover of all the finer things in life; along with the decorative arts, fine cuisine and wines, he also enjoys the company of women and rarely denies himself anything, so of course it follows that however good his intentions are, he is bound to fall in love with Celia, even though the latter detests him to the core. The trap is set, and what rises must fall, and throughout this novel we follow Merivel’s progress from King’s physician to wannabe artist and musician, to his time spent in the New Bedlam hospital, in Norfolk, where he tries to cure the insane once he has fallen from grace, a place from which he manages to fall from grace even further. Merivel is a fascinating character and though he doesn’t dwell much on why he is so obsessed with the king or any of his other inner motivations, he doesn’t lack in observational skills and describes his daily life and the happenings among these unusual circles of people in a very amusing manner, though the novel doesn’t lack for depth and melancholy observations on life, nor tragic events, as, among other things, the Great Fire of London (1666) plays a large role in the narrative.
I was very happy to discover that Tremain wrote a sequel in 2012, simply called Merivel, and it won’t be long before I pick it up. I listened to this book wonderfully narrated by Paul Daneman, one of those narrators I liked so much that I immediately tried to find what other books I could get which were read by him, but unfortunately, this is the only one on offer at present, and as this English actor passed away quite some time ago, there are unlikely to be others. There will be more Tremain in the near future for me however; other than the follow-up novel above-mentioned, I also have The Colour in the stacks, and just got hold her first book Sadler’s Birthday, as I’m tempted to read her complete works in due course.
Most highly recommended!