Jonathan Coe’s satirical British novel What a Carve Up! (or The Winshaw Legacy in America) is both hilarious and touching in the way that only a postmodernist novel could be. The historical context of the novel deals with the political and social climate in Britain during the 1980s and early 90s as it builds to the Gulf War in Iraq. We learn of these developments through the point of view of our protagonist Michael Owen and the infamous Winshaw family.
Michael is tasked with writing an epic historical book chronicling the Winshaw family with a specific focus on all the terrible deeds they have done. Coe uses the current generation of Winshaws to stand in for the most basic of societal constructs (Politics, Finance, Media, Military, Art, and Agriculture) and explores their influence on British society and on Michael’s own personal life.
But the novel is more than just a scathing look at Britain’s society. Coe also incorporates great humor through his homage to the campy murder mystery genre. When Michael sees the film What a Carve Up! (an actual 1961 film) on his birthday, his life is forever changed. The movie consists of a family gathering at a creepy, old family home for the reading of a will. But when Agatha Christie-style murders begin occurring, everyone is put on edge.
The absurdities that occur in that genre of film come alive in the Winshaw family where a sister accuses her brother of secretly killing her other brother and gets locked away in an asylum in the process. Other secrets are kept family members and as Michael becomes to uncover them his own life is put in danger.
The complexities of the story become even more tangled before the reader can truly untangle them all, but there are enough answers given throughout the book to prevent the reader from getting frustrated with the mysteries. Coe’s style of writing is quick-witted and was very enjoyable to read. I found myself laughing throughout the novel, and the intrigue he provided kept me reading it for hours at a time. Think of the novel as a blend of Clue and Brideshead Revisited and you’ll have some idea of the tone and scope. This book is about so much and has so many subtle complexities that it would take at least a 10-page term paper to explore everything satisfactorily. But if anything I’ve written about in the last few paragraphs seems interesting to you then I definitely recommend this book (you won’t be disappointed).