IT’S more than 20 years since the England of Charles II’s reign cavorted its way into the collective psyche in Rose Tremain’s Restoration.
Thankfully, it is also more than 15 years since Hollywood’s hamfisted take on the novel reduced her inspired tragi-comic creation, the physician courtier Robert Merivel, to a Robert Downey Jr-sized approximation, and the king to a one-note caricature as imagined by Sam Neill.
Well, Time heals. Meeting Tremain’s Merivel again, as he takes up his narrative in 1683 – a decade and a half after we last met him – is a profound delight. Not that you need to have met him before to become engrossed. The haberdasher’s son turned king’s confidant drip-feeds the essentials from his past as he goes, although readers of the earlier novel will thrill with recognition each time he reveals how little life has really taught him.
Time decays too, of course. So Merivel’s hair is thinner and his girth bigger. Will Gates, his devoted servant , is now infirm – although appearances deceive. Cattlebury, the maverick chef and spluttering anti-royalist, is shakier too, and his menus more alarming.
And then there’s Margaret, Merivel’s daughter. She has grown up to be pretty, sensible and devoted to him. But her life is just beginning, and it’s this knowledge that stirs Merivel from a seductive lethargy, determined to live a little before it is too late.
To sketch the plot – which includes a spell at the court of Louis XIV and the misjudged rescue of a performing bear – is to give this subtle distillation of characters, events and human insight the appearance of a historical romp.
Being Tremain, it’s very much more than that. She brings the closing days of Charles’s reign alive through a skilful mix of research, wit and deftly crafted prose.
Her characters laugh, cry, plot and flounder so convincingly that they take up residence in your head and refuse to go away – even when Time has finally caught up with them. «
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