The shifting fortunes of England between WWII and the early 1990s is the subject of this broad, complex, genre-blending, scathing, and hilarious satire from one of Britain's best contemporary writers. The framework for this is a fictitious Yorkshire family, whose tentacles extend deeply into politics, media, and the corporate world. The Winshaws include: Arms dealer Mark, MP Henry, widely-read columnist Hilary, investment banker Thomas, art dealer Roddy, industrial poultry executive Dorothy, and institutionalized Tabitha. Struggling novelist Michael Owen is commissioned by Tabitha to write the family history, and in the course of his research, Owen comes to realize that the Winshaws are "wretched, lying, thieving, self-advancing" elites whose actions embody the decline of the country.
In a dizzying feat of narrative, we learn of the Winshaws' private and public lives, how they all intersect, and especially how intellectually and morally shallow they each are. For example, via Hilary, we see the rise of Murdoch-style tabloid journalism, via Thomas the insider trading scandals, and via Henry, the trainwreck of Tory/Thatcherite economic policies. But as if this wasn't enough to keep the reader's attention, the story also works in a mystery involving two mysterious deaths, and a strange running congruence to the 1961 comedy film What A Carve Up! The result is a whirlwind of genres, including old-fashioned Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, P.G. Wodehouse-style comic novel, Evelyn Waugh-style social satire, and Christopher Hitchens-style political polemic, all of which combine for a thoroughly entertaining read.
Some may find fault in Coe's ripe and vivid portrayal of this family of scoundrels, but it's entirely in keeping with the satiric and farcical tone of the work. More importantly, it's entirely in keeping with the political nature of the story, for this is that rarest of beasts, a thoroughly entertaining political novel. Coe unabashedly lays the blame for social woes at the feet of the businessmen (and women), politicians, and pundits who profited throughout the "greed is good" '80 and '90s as the poor grew poorer. And if anything, the twelve plus years since its publication only vindicate his selection of targets as -- at least in America -- we have experienced war based on politically-based lies, ever-increasing consolidation and dumbing down of the media, corporate fraud on a massive scale, bioengineering of food -- all of which are directly attacked in the novel. A wonderful novel, one well worth rereading every few years.
Note: Originally titled "What a Carve Up!" in the UK, the book was retitled as "The Winshaw Legacy" for the US.