The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce
Paul Torday’s debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, was a wonderful comedy about a man who is living a dull life, but realizes what he has been missing and manages to turn things for the better. It was a huge success and it was even adapted to a BBC radio play. His second book, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (American title: Bordeaux), is based on a similar concept, but was not as successful as Salmon Fishing. The reason is that Wilberforce doesn't make you feel as comfortable. Although funny at times, it's not a comedy, it's the tragic story of a man who drinks himself to death. It's worth reading nonetheless.
We meet Wilberforce (who doesn't like to be called by his first name) at the very end of his life. A rich wine connoisseur searching for the most perfect taste experience, who selects restaurants not by their menu, but by their wine list. He owns a huge, well-sorted collection of wines in his private cellar, but drives all the way to a restaurant that reportedly still has a bottle of the most famous 1982 Château Pétrus. Torday describes the eager anticipation of the connoisseur for this special event in vivid detail and you may even be convinced by the pleasure Wilberforce takes in drinking this bottle worth 3,000 pounds. When he orders a second bottle, however, and eventually is thrown out of the restaurant, the picture he has painted of himself falls apart.
The book is divided into four sections and reads in reverse chronological order, a daring but wise decision by the author. We follow Wilberforce through the last years of his life, at the end and the beginning of his marriage. We learn about a mysterious trip to Columbia, how he gets alienated from and meets his friends. At the end of the book, he is a successful businessman who has never drunken anything and is bored with life. The story thus poses a chilling contrast to Salmon Fishing, as Wilberforce's attempt to reinvent himself ultimately destroys him.
It is at times painful to read this book, as you always have the beginning (or rather the end) in mind, but this is also why it's so captivating, watching the inevitable misery unfold like a Greek tragedy. I was somewhat relieved when I had finished the book, but it is one of those rare gems I kept thinking about a long time after I put it back on the bookshelf.