Sunday, 2 August 2015

Book of the Month: Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare)

Inheritance is the second novel of British writer Nicholas Shakespeare that I have read. Many years ago I read High Flyer, one of his early novels. I don’t remember much about it other than that it was a comedy of manners. It did not work for me and over the next few years I steered clear of his novels. I bought a couple (Dancer Upstairs and Snowleg) which attracted good reviews; the subject matter of Snowleg, set in Cold War Berlin, also interested me. Both these novels have been in my collection for many years but I have not yet got round to read them.

Inheritance is two novels in one. The first one, one with which the novel opens, is a modern day comedy of manners. Andy Larkham is a well meaning if slightly feckless assistant editor in a small-time publishing company called Carpe Diem that sells Self-Help books at bargain-basement prices. Bullied into accepting a low salary by his overbearing South-African boss Rian Goodman, Larkham leads an impecunious existence, depending on the weekly largesse from the only other employee in Carpe Diem, Angela, who is Goodman’s PA, to keep the creditors at bay. It is his lack of solvency that, Andy suspects, is the reason why his fiancée, Sophie (who is a model and earns a lot more than him), has dumped him (in a painfully funny scene where Sophie informs Andy of her decision to leave him over a dinner in his favourite Portuguese restaurant, for which she ends up paying, as Andy’s credit card is rejected; and he is further mortified to discover that the new man in her life was sitting at the next table all through their dinner, having been summoned by Sophie in case Andy created trouble). Then Andy receives a manuscript from his old school-teacher Stuart Furnivall. Furnivall has been an inspirational teacher for Andy. He is now retired and over the years Andy has kept in touch with him, although not as frequently as either would have wished. Furnivall, in his retirement, has produced a volume of work on the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, which he sends to Andy for his opinion. Andy, mired in editing self-help books (ranging in titles from good sex to efficient guide dogs) simply does not have the time to go through the voluminous manuscript, and he is not impressed by the first few pages he manages to read. Then Andy receives a call from another teacher informing him that Furnivall has died. Wrecked by guilt at not having kept in touch with his old teacher Andy decides to attend the funeral. Except that, upon reaching the crematorium late, he dashes into the wrong funeral, which he is too embarrassed to leave half-way through. He even ends up signing the condolence book. He is therefore flabbergasted to learn a few weeks later, from the executor of the will of the dead man, that by dint of accidentally attending the funeral of a man he had not known or met or heard of until then, he has become rich beyond imagination. The dead man decreed in his will that his vast estate be equally divided amongst whoever attends his funeral service. Since Andy was one of the only two—the other being a sour-faced old woman with Eastern European looks—he is the beneficiary of 17 million pounds.

How does one cope with sudden, unexpected riches which one realises at one level one does not deserve? Pangs to Andy’s conscience are not eased when he learns that the dead man, one Christopher Madigan, has a daughter who is not going to get a penny of her father’s fortune because she reached the funeral service just after it was finished and the pedantic executor refused to allow her to sign the condolence book. The daughter, Jeannine, has been estranged from Madigan for years; she visits Andy on a couple of occasions at his tacky London flat demanding to know how he had come to know her father who, for the last however many years of his life, led, as far as she was aware, an isolated, curmudgeonly existence. Thinking that the daughter intends to contest the will (and panicking) Andy embarks upon the most outrageous lie by weaving the story of his dead teacher and his interest in Montaigne into Madigan’s last years, and only just gets away with it thanks to Jeannine’s having had no contact with her father for several years (plus her total incuriosity about wanting to check—which she could have easily done had she chosen to by speaking to the other attendee of Madigan’s funeral, the old woman who is indeed Madigan’s housekeeper for several years—whether the kind of things Andy tells her about her father’s last years are in fact true). To Andy’s relief, Jeannine decides not to contest the will. He duly receives his manna, and, as the cliché goes, his life changes—for the better for all outward appearances. Andy has revenge sex with Sophie who tries to sidle back into his life; quaffs vintage red wines (a 1982 Petrus, a 1997 Sammarco); buys flash cars; donates his Le Corbusier chair and Warhols to charities; presents his friends with expensive gifts (a friend looks out of the window of his house one day to find a brand new Toyota parked in front of it), and laments that the friends do not appear sufficiently grateful—indeed the more gifts he showers on them the more sullen they become. Money, Andy discovers, can’t buy friendships, in fact it seems to repel his old friends from him.

Andy is curious to find out more about his benefactor. Not being able to find out much in the way of useful information other than that Madigan made his fortune in mines and probably had Armenian ancestry, Andy decides that the only way to find out more about the dead millionaire who seems to have existed below the radar (remarkable given his vast fortune which ought to have earned him a regular place in the Times’s yearly list of 500 richest people in England), is to speak to the man’s housekeeper, Maral, who, like him, has become excessively rich.

The narrative changes its tone and gear at this point. It becomes more sombre as Maral tells Andy the story of Christopher Madigan in a guesthouse in Cornwall, and how this rich man came to be estranged from his only child. Andy discovers that Madigan indeed was of Armenian descent and was born Krikor Makertich in the Syrian city of Appello, to which his grandmother had escaped in the wake of the 1915 Armenian Massacre in Turkey. Indeed Krikor is one quarter Turkish, as his father was born after his (father’s) mother was raped by a Turkish soldier. After his grandmother’s death the family moves to the Australian outback, carving out a hand-to-mouth existence. Young Krikor loses his heart to a young woman named Cheryl, the daughter of his Australian employer, only to be spurned by her family on the grounds that Krikor is not good enough for their daughter. Krikor, over the next few years, fortuitously makes his fortune in the iron ore, relocates to England, changes his name to Christopher Madigan, gets rid of his Australian accent, and leads a quiet life of a rich Englishman. Then he meets Cheryl, fortuitously (there are rather a lot of coincidences in the novel), in a pub where she is now working as a waitress, things having gone spectacularly wrong for her family financially. Her father ill-advisedly invested money in a scheme (that probably gave Bernard Madehoff the idea to start his ponzi scheme) and the fraudster who duped the family and to whom Cheryl was engaged disappeared. Makertich/Madigan marries Cheryl and in due course they have a daughter, Jeannine. Just when life seems to Makertich/Madigan the proverbial bed of roses, the fraudster makes a re-entry and Cheryl loses her heart to him for the second time. When Makertich/Madigan discovers his wife’s infidelity he blows off like an Iraq refinery bombed from above. Cheryl is given the marching orders; she is compensated financially on the condition that she is not to have any further contacts with their daughter. Of course it does not go to the plan. Cheryl manages to smuggle Jeannine away (due to a basic error of judgment from Maral, the housekeeper, which ensures that she will have a lifetime of guilt and regrets), and poisons her daughter’s mind against her father.

The narrative once again lurches into the present. Andy, having heard Madigan’s life story, decides that it is his duty to (a) come clean about the lies he told Jeannine about his non-existent friendship with her father and (b) redeem the dead man in the eyes of his daughter. That duly happens and it all ends well.

In Inheritance Shakespeare does not seem able to make up his mind whether he wants to tell a light-hearted, modern-day morality tale or a reflect on weightier themes such as what it means to individuals to feel that they belong, how people come to terms with loss, the consequences of decisions people make which come to haunt their lives, and the unseen hand of the unpredictable fate that shapes lives.

The novel starts off jauntily enough, and, as one reads the tribulations of the likeable, if hapless, Andy, one settles into the rhythm of the narrative, which is fast paced, and its tone, which is light-hearted. The tone and the pace shift so noticeably when the story of Madigan begins to unfold that you almost feel the jolt. While there is nothing wrong in giving the reader a jolt once in a while, the lengthy sections devoted to Madigan’s story give the novel a sense of disjointedness.

Christopher Madigan’s story is not lacking in drama; if anything it is too melodramatic at times. The circumstances in which Madigan loses the custody of his daughter to his faithless wife and the subsequent breakdown of his relationship with his daughter are, on the one hand very theatrical, on the other unconvincing. It stretches the limit of credulity to assume that a powerful multimillionaire simply goes along with the lie his ex-wife decides to tell their daughter—that he has left the family in England and gone to Australia when in fact he is living practically next door—and the daughter, even when she grows up, does not see through it. The conveniently recurrent appearances of the villain Flexmore (although it is not the only name by which he goes) at convenient junctures in Madigan’s life are almost too convenient. The only purpose, it seems, Flexomore has is to destroy Madigan’s happiness. The ruse Flexmore uses to lure gullible, unsuspecting individuals to part with their money is so crude (and a bit silly) that it is difficult to believe the novel’s projection of him as some sort of master criminal who has evaded the Interpol for decades.

Madigan’s Armenian ancestry and the historical background of the 1915 Armenian massacre provide no new dimension to the story. For all you care Madigan could have been Zlatan Bogdanovic from Serbia and it would have made no difference to the story. The baggage of history Madigan allegedly carries with him has no influence on his conduct or the trajectory his life takes (beyond him sending a chartered flight of aid when an earthquake strikes Armenia in the Soviet times).

Shakespeare, you get the feeling, is at his ease when describing the contemporary world of Andy Larkham; that is his forte. The prose flows smoothly in this section of the novel. It becomes heavy and belaboured when Shakespeare tells Madigan’s story through his mouthpiece—Maral. Maral speaks more like a character out of a Victorian drama than a twentieth century housekeeper. The prose, while free of stylistic and syntactic oddities which abound in the section starring Andy, has a contrived feel to it, but then the whole section has a contrived feel to it with coincidences coming thick and fast.

Inheritance is an easy enough and moderately riveting, if lightweight, read. The story is engaging enough despite being clichéd. Is it a morality tale? The wealth does not bring happiness and fulfilment to Madigan who dies a lonely man, but to Andy, in many ways an undeserving recipient of Madigan’s wealth, it brings happiness and fulfilment. If Inheritance is a parable the message is slightly warped. Six out of ten.