Restoration by Rose Tremain – somehow I have managed to miss out on this utter gem so far in my reading life and I can’t quite believe what I’ve been missing. This is one of the best historical novels I have ever read and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen others describe it as redefining the whole historical novel genre which I don’t think is an exaggeration. I imagine its impact in the 1980s, when it was first published, was even greater than for me reading it today; being pitched into a personality so thoroughly must have been so new and fresh. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, although very different books to this, use this technique as well and have some similarities – I wonder if Mantel was inspired by Tremain? I wouldn’t be surprised.
The book, for those who have not read it, is about a very ordinary man, Robert Merivel, who, thanks to his father and his talent for playing the fool, ends up living a very extraordinary life at the court of Charles II. Merivel is so stupid, flawed, loveable and wonderful I’m struggling to find an original, suitable adjective! At various different points of the novel I was cringing for him, crying for him, laughing with him and admiring him. Above all other things, he is a genuine person and one of the most life-like characters I have ever read about. He is unstintingly honest with himself (and therefore with the reader) and exposes himself, warts and all in a way which reminded me of Pepys’ diaries.
The main messages I took from the book were that finding your place in the world is important for your self-respect and that a person who trades their integrity for money and comfort is making a Faustian bargain! Thank you Rose Tremain for one of those rare books that really do transform your understanding of good writing. The sequel to Restoration, Merivel: A Man of His Time has just been published and so that is now firmly on my wish list!