Paul Torday hit on a winning formula with his debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Pick a fogeyish hobby, initiate your readers into its joys and frustrations, throw in a bit of modish satire, a thwarted love story, and ensure that your hero emerges from life's journey a better man. It sold in 19 countries and received Richard and Judy's blessing. His follow-up starts out from a similar place with its tale of a lonely man and his oenological obsession. But Wilberforce is less Pooterish than his predecessor. As the narrative progresses, he proves positively sociopathic, and his love of wine isn't an enhancement of his otherwise humdrum existence – it's a curse.
"As soon as the wine is opened, it begins to die," intones Francis Black, owner of the vast store of vintage bottles housed at Caerlyon Hall. So, too, does our hero. No sooner has his hitherto uneducated palate been tempted by some of Francis's finest than Wilberforce's fate is sealed. We know it from the first pages because this story spools in reverse order. Told, its author says, "in four vintages", the tale begins in 2006 as Wilberforce is ordering a £3,000 bottle of Château Pétrus 1982. He orders a second, shortly before blacking out and being ejected from the restaurant.
Thereafter, we hop back across his preceding four years to learn how a socially maladroit, emotionally retarded, practically teetotal software whizz found himself under the spell of Francis, a dying wine collector living in a stately home that's mortgaged to the hilt and desperately searching for an heir. Wilberforce falls in with a circle of friends for the first time in his life and, before long, has stolen a fiancée, sold off his life's work, and paid a million pounds to rescue Francis's largely worthless estate. But his triumphs are shortlived: he can't cope with love, not for his wine or his wife. Both overwhelm him and he ends up alone, a hopeless, soon-to-die drunk and a widower.
This is a much blacker novel than Torday's first: Wilberforce suffers such delusions that he is forced to write himself a chilling mnemonic, TNMWWTTW (The Night My Wife Went Through The Windscreen), in order to remember what happened to his beloved Catherine. The narrative style has none of the light comedy of Salmon Fishing with its parodies of civil service memos, emails and press reports. Torday's confidence in his story's power to command attention, despite beginning at its end, is not misplaced. He's good on fine wines and the people who drink them: ruddy-faced chaps like Eck Chetwode-Talbot, a relative of Harriet, the love interest at the centre of Torday's previous book. But the satirical elements, such as the portrait of Wilberforce's stint in rehab, are less successful and the hero makes a very unconvincing 37-year-old. Terrible title aside, though, Wilberforce is well worth sampling.
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