The Irresistible Inheritance of Wiberforce by Paul Torday was not what I expected. I thought the book would be funny. The book is not funny. It is downright depressing. But, if it’s depressing, at least it is well written.
The story is told from the present to the past. We start with Wilberforce, already drunk on wine, arriving at a high-priced restaurant to drink a bottle of Petrus that will set him back £6,000. Not only does he drink the entire bottle by himself, but he finds out there is a second bottle. Unable to bear the idea of someone who does not understand the importance and history of this wine, he orders the second bottle. As he is working his way through the second bottle he starts hallucinating his dead wife. When he starts talking to her and then singing to her, he is asked to leave. He passes out.
Three days later he wakes up at home in his own bed with a friend who is a very good doctor taking care of him. Turns out he has been in coma. Eventually his doctor friend diagnoses Wilberforce with Wernicke’s encephalopathy. He is so far along in this disease that he is starting to exhibit Korsakoff’s pyschosis and if he doesn’t stop drinking he’s going to die. Of course Wilberforce can’t stop drinking. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t think that drinking five or six bottles of wine a day is a problem. He is a wine connoisseur, he is not an alcoholic. He doesn’t even consider wine to be alcohol. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Wilberforce is in complete denial and is going to die, it’s only a matter of time. Once the reader gets a good look at the horrors in store for Wilberforce, we are taken back in time a couple of years.
Gradually we work our way back in time to the beginning in which Wilberforce is in his mid-thirties and realizes he has spent the last fifteen years doing nothing with his life but work. At the age of twenty he started a software development company that grew and grew and became quite successful. One day he drives up the hill from the valley where his company’s offices are and sees a hand-lettered sign advertising fine Bordeaux. He doesn’t drink wine but he is curious so turns off the road and finds himself pulling up in the drive of a once huge estate called Caerlyon. The proprietor and sole living heir, Francis Black, lures Wilberforce in.
Over the course of about five years, Wilberforce goes from workaholic to alcoholic. He sells his company so he can buy Caerlyon from Francis who has cancer and is dying and who wants Wilberforce to have all the wine he has collected. During this time he also meets Catherine who is supposed to be a good girl and marry Ed because the two families have known each other for years and they planned the union since Ed and Catherine were children. But Catherine doesn’t love Ed, and the mysterious Wilberforce intruding into the world of the monied is different which makes him interesting. There are undertones of Wuthering Heights in this love triangle.
Catherine marries Wilberforce. Within a year of their marriage, Catherine is killed in a tragic car accident from which Wilberforce walks away with barely a scratch. I won’t give away the detail, but if you suspect alcohol is involved, you are correct.
I like the way the story is told backward. Knowing how things end up throws a different light on events as we find out about them. The friendship between Francis and Wilberforce doesn’t seem so very innocent. Francis is often manipulative, sometimes evilly so. And I found myself squirming uncomfortably at times, wishing Wilberforce could find enough distance so he could see what was going on. But Francis isn’t the only one who manipulates Wilberforce, just about everyone gets a go at him. He’s one of those people who don’t have the best social skills and only want to belong. It is painful to watch. His sense of self is so non-existent that at one point he says,
Because I am nobody, I can choose to be whom I like. I can choose my life to be what I want it to be. I can become anybody; I can do anything.
These could be triumphant words if we knew he became Prime Minister or head of Oxfam or something. But knowing how he ends up, it only makes the story even sadder.
This is not an uplifting book. Wilberforce and his life are not redeemed in the end, and in that way it is probably more true-to-life than a book in which such a character on the brink of death turns his life around and makes good in the few weeks or months left to him. The book is a good character study and a reminder that sometimes the choices we made last year or five years ago, come back to haunt us.