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Logo of brjgenpracRCGP homepageJ R Coll Gen Pract at PubMed CentralBJGP at RCGPBJGP at RCGP
Br J Gen Pract. 2009 September 1; 59(566): 704–705.
PMCID: PMC2734371

Book reviews: The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages

Reviewed by Roger Jones

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce: A Novel in Four Vintages.
Paul Torday Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London. 2008. p. 308£12.99 ISBN:  9780297851592.

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This is the sequel to the very successful Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and is an engaging and quirky tale, told backwards, of the eponymous hero's consumption of several bottles of claret each day and the consequences of drinking such large quantities of expensive French wine. In the opening pages Wilberforce spends about £6000 on two bottles of Petrus while dining alone, and by page 55 the question of Wernicke encephalopathy has arisen (although don't forget that parts of this book are narrated in reverse). The remainder of the narrative goes on (or back) to describe the events, some predictable, some mysterious, which led up to Wilberforce's profound interest in the great wines of Bordeaux.

Rendered socially inept and unworldly by long years invested in his software company, Wilberforce first encounters wine, friendship, and love in a hilltop country house in Northumberland. His increasingly reverential (and gargantuan) enjoyment of the Grands Crus, the magic of the great chateaux and the complexities of claret drinking are conveyed in a strangely matter of fact style which makes the idea of a bottle of Chateau Palmer before breakfast seem perfectly reasonable. It isn't long before things start to go wrong in all departments of his life, and Wilberforce is swept downhill on a flood of vin rouge.

Torday writes with great clarity and economy, while often hitting high emotional notes. He also has a real ear for dialogue and conveys the essence of his characters through speech rather than description. The county set who hover around Francis Black's wonderful wine collection, and Wilberforce's business partner, Andy, are beautifully drawn, largely through their conversations. Because the writing is so good and clear, the distinctions between fantasy, encephalopathy and psychopathology are often difficult to catch. The sense of unreality is heightened by the recurrent, and slightly over-worked, intrusion of a bad dream set in Bogota, while Wilberforce's unshakable loyalty to Francis and his clarets, against all odds, is itself testimony to the power of dreams and illusions. Some of the most shocking and inappropriate events are described in a chillingly clinical way, reminiscent of Elizabeth Highsmith's descriptions of Tom Ripley's antics.

This book will probably be described as a good summer read (especially for holidays in the south of France) but it is more than that, and I'm looking forward to hearing more from Paul Torday.

Articles from The British Journal of General Practice are provided here courtesy of Royal College of General Practitioners