Chatto & Windus, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Merivel: a man of his time, By Rose Tremain

This sequel revisits the rackety life of a 17th-century physician who can teach us new tricks

At the start of Rose Tremain's 12th novel Sir Robert Merivel, now in 1683 a settled if rather melancholy Norfolk gentleman, rescues a tattered manuscript from under his bed. In tribute to its useful if humble role, he dubs this testament "The Wedge". It bears, of course, more than a slight likeness to the account of Merivel's earlier life that, in 1989, Tremain published as Restoration.

For a novelist to revisit a favourite character (after no less than 23 years) carries risks. Besides, Tremain has from book to book always widened her horizons and deepened her repertoire. She has conjured into intense being gold prospectors in New Zealand (The Colour), Polish workers in London (The Road Home) or migrant musicians at a Baroque Danish court (Music and Silence). Her pitch-perfect virtuosity throve on changes of scene and tone quite much as her questing protagonists did.

So can the physician Merivel, that roguish and randy old dog who saw his fortunes soar, plunge and then ascend again thanks to the favour of his beloved Charles II, teach us some new tricks? Of course he can. But, even as the adventurer stirs from his estate to sample the final years of the Merry Monarch's reign (1683-1685) in full-flavoured encounters with the foppish scum of society and its destitute dregs, this novel becomes a meditation on ageing (Merivel hits his late fifties), on feelings of waste and futility, and on the search for a legacy to make a life of "Confusion and Muddle" count.

Witty and frank, with the first-person swagger of his voice as much of a treat as before, Merivel - bawdy, brazen but tender-hearted too - remains liable as ever to indulge his compassion (he saves a caged bear in France) or his lust (he kicks off an orgy in a stage-coach in the Alps). All the same, Sir Robert has to make a reckoning with posterity as - for this blithe sceptic in matters of faith - "the concept of Non-Being fills me with outrage". Merivel glimpses the sense of an ending - or rather, for this hedger of bets, of five options.

In Versailles, he fails to meet Louis XIV (with a terrific cameo of the Sun King's court as a Kafkaesque nightmare) but falls in love with a Swiss noblewoman who has a congenial passion for medicinal botany, and a conveniently gay soldier-husband. Meanwhile, his old amour Violet suffers from breast cancer. He must operate. Cue another brilliantly executed, if gory, period vignette.

Tremain gets the doctoring right, with unsparing relish but no superior hindsight - her novel has, justly, reached the shortlist of the Wellcome Prize for books with a medical theme. Merivel's dear daughter Margaret catches the King's eye and goes up to Whitehall; and he seeks to overcome a fear of "meaninglessness" via a learned treatise on the souls of animals, whose welfare always engages him.

As it bounces from one zestful set-piece to another, the novel entertains as much as its rackety hero could desire. But, like him, it also dips into sadness as thoughts of mortality tighten their grip. A weak-willed "Amalgam of vain Longings and Appetites", he wonders why his tale, or life, should matter at all. Well, as Charles himself says, "All is in the story, Merivel". For a second time, this is one to cherish.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam