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Jonathan Coe: What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy)

I am aware of two first-class novels that savage Thatcherism – J G Ballard‘s Running Wild and this one. This book is about the Winshaw family (hence the feeble US title). Michael Owen, a not very successful novelist, has been given the task of writing the Winshaw family history. The Winshaws are, of course, one of those eccentric British families, beloved of writers, with skeletons in the closet and madwomen in the attic. In the 1980s, however, they have become a symbol for the worst excesses of Thatcherism – arms deals with Saddam Hussein, exploitative farming, crooked finance deals, Murdochian newspapers, killing the health service. Indeed, there seems to be no Thatcherite crime that does not have a Winshaw behind it. This is, in itself, fascinating enough, as Coe not only savages the Thatcherite legacy but he does it with great humour.

However, there is more. As I said, the Winshaws are one of those eccentric families and Coe, in parodying Thatcherism, parodies them and their foibles. He makes a strong connection between the strange going-ons in their family and in their family home and the third-rate British film comedy What a Carve Up (called No Place Like Homicide in the US, which is one of the reasons the book’s title was changed in the US, losing Coe’s not very subtle joke). Owen has to make to sense all of this, of the mysterious death of one of the family in the war, who may have been murdered by another family member, of the madwoman in the attic, Aunt Tabitha. He does not have much success, spending much of his time masturbating over Shirley Eaton, star of What a Carve Up. Lovers of the Iron Lady may not be too keen on this book but, for the rest of us, it is a witty and brilliant carve-up of all she stood for. Unlike most recent British novels, it is not afraid to confront the politics of the era head-on. It is undoubtedly one of the best British novels of the last quarter of the century.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Viking