cover image The Winshaw Legacy: Or What a Carve Up!

The Winshaw Legacy: Or What a Carve Up!

Jonathan Coe. Knopf Publishing Group, $24 (500pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43385-9

In this patchily entertaining postmodern pastiche of class warfare, Coe places Michael Owen, a burnt-out middle-class writer, as the family chronicler of the Winshaws, an upper-class British dynasty involved in everything wrong with modern England: television and tabloid journalism (Hilary, the hack); Thatcherite politics and National Health Service Reform (Henry, the back-stabber); industrialized agriculture (the beastly Dorothy); insider stock trading (Thomas, the voyeur); and arms dealing with Iraq (the callous Mark). Coe's contemporary vile bodies are not only utterly unprincipled, greedy and philistine, but their presentation is uninspired and unamusing as well, contracting these issues down to a distinctly parochial dimension. Sandwiching their corrupt stories is an intricate comic plot out of the murder-at-the-manor genre, weirdly reflected in Owen's obsession with an old movie in which he is convinced he stars and which determines his fate. Coe's dry, deflating Midlands sense of humor infrequently rises above the episodes of scrupulously didactic satire and works well with the more quotidian social ills, such as telly-addiction and the unending waits in NHS hospitals. The narrative becomes more interesting toward the end, when Coe gets around to murdering a number of his characters, but since they never become quite real in the first place, the reader doesn't really care. A story closer to this mundane Britain of post-Thatcher disaffection would have been more welcome for his American debut than agitprop Waugh-mongering. (Feb.)