Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain – review

Rose Tremain's sequel to Restoration has all the wit, grit and poignancy of the original

Making a "part two" to a classic piece of art after leaving the original to gather dust for a couple of decades often results in a work that feels about as vital as a cadaver with jump leads attached to it, but in the form of Merivel: A Man of His Time, Rose Tremain has come up with a sequel to her wonderful 1989 novel Restoration that's almost every bit as human, textured and buoyant as its predecessor.

The buoyancy is even more of a surprise, perhaps, because Merivel's fundamental themes are elegiac. The book's eponymous narrator, Robert Merivel, physician to Charles II, is coming towards the end of his life, as are the book's other two main characters, Merivel's faithful (somewhat undervalued) manservant, Will, and Charles himself. Out of this, Tremain has fashioned a story that, in the most reflective way, feels a bit like a giddy bareback horse ride across the southern part of 17th-century England and some of France.

Fifteen years after being restored to his house Bidnold in Norfolk, in Restoration's closing scenes, Merivel, lonely after the departure of his daughter, Margaret, for Cornwall, goes, at the suggestion of Charles, to Versailles. He comes back not with the hoped-for patronage of Louis XIV, but with a rescued bear and a new, ill-advised romance with a married woman. Tremain is our most subtly dazzling, multi-talented writer of historical fiction, capable of writing with great poignancy about animals (those who found the scene with the cow in her The Colour a tearjerker should prepare themselves for said bear), graphically but not gratuitously about sex in the 1600s, and further crafting, in a rare way for a female novelist, a male character who's both deeply flawed and hugely likable.

She gives us a wincingly real picture of a cancer being cut out of a breast and there's a rich and pungent sense of a slightly hungover Restoration England here, but it's much easier in her company to forget you're reading a historical novel than it is in, say, Hilary Mantel's, as her main concern is the eternal one of a human character wrestling with its defects. Merivel does seem like a man of his time, but ends up coming across quite a bit like a man of ours, too.


Tom Cox

The GuardianTramp

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