Work of fiction worth the long wait

The return of a favourite character is welcomed by Nicky Pellegrino.

Rose Tremain took 20 years to write a sequel to Restoration. Photo / Supplied
Rose Tremain took 20 years to write a sequel to Restoration. Photo / Supplied

Tremendous is the word I keep returning to when trying to describe UK author Rose Tremain's 12th novel Merivel A Man Of His Time.

Tremain is one of the more versatile of today's writers, moving between contemporary and historical fiction with ease, undaunted by the prospect of striking out and trying something new. But with this latest book she's done a curious thing and gone backwards, producing a follow up to a novel that was published more than 20 years ago.

Restoration is probably her best-known work (it was made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jnr and Hugh Grant in the mid-90s), but after such a lapse of time who could recall more than its barest details? And why has Tremain waited so long to provide us with a sequel?

Set in 17th-century England, Restoration was the tale of the misadventures of physician Robert Merivel as he fell in and out of favour with King Charles II. Now we meet him again later in life, an older man but not necessarily any wiser. Plagued by melancholy, surrounded by aged retainers, as self-centred, roguish and endearing as ever, we find him at his country estate, wearing out his handkerchiefs with sudden storms of tears as he looks back over his life.

In his mid-50s, Merivel has reached a point where some of those he loves have died and others, such as his daughter Margaret, are on the cusp of leaving him. The bright hope of the Restoration has long since dulled and he is struggling to find a purpose in his existence.

To reinvigorate himself, Merivel resolves to travel to the French Court in Versailles. His time there turns out to be far less glittering than he had imagined but he does meet lonely and sexually voracious Louise de Flamanville who is trapped in a loveless marriage with a gay Swiss Guard and appears to offer a perfect prospect for his future.

However, nothing is so uncomplicated in this picaresque adventure. Merivel returns from France (along with a rescued bear), faces losing his daughter to a life-threatening illness, sees the decline of an old lover and his beloved King, is challenged to a duel and slowly becomes a wiser man, although no less vain.

And now I understand why Tremain did not attempt a sequel to Restoration any sooner. She had to wait until she understood how it was to grow older before she knew what Merivel would become.

Equal parts vainglorious and ridiculous; his character is a delight. While Tremain references and reflects details of his past, I don't think it is imperative to have read or to remember Restoration to enjoy the second part of his life story. It operates perfectly well as a standalone book.

And yes, it was worth waiting because this is a brilliant piece of writing; exuberant and melancholy, comic and soulful. It is definitely the most compelling and entertaining fiction I've read so far this year. Tremendous!

- Herald on Sunday

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