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on 29 March 2017
This is a very impressive piece of work. It takes a very firm stance against the corporate and political excesses of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

It stirred old memories of injustices and inequality from the past and gives some weight to vague memories of things being 'a bit dodgy but I'm not sure how' that I had at the time.

The structure is very strange with no coherent time line. I couldn't see the reason for this but it didn't really have an impact on being able to follow the story.

It is very funny to the point of farce in some sections, wryly amusing in others and deadly earnest on occasion. It is written from the point of a number of characters and each has their own voice.

It is tempting to see Michael as an autobiographical character, given the age and midlands upbringing. Clearly, seeing the 'What a Carve Up' film was an important event. I am almost exactly the same age and was also taken to see that film one wet afternoon in 1961 by my Dad. More spookily, I am pretty sure it was actually the day Yuri Gagarin's flight was announced as I can remember my dad discussing it with a paper seller.

The final chapter in particular are a virtual re-run of the film and I can't imagine how it works if you haven't seen it. I managed to see it for the first time in over fifty years whilst reading this and it gave me the images to go with the text. It looks as though the author was so struck by the film that he developed the whole thing just to be able to relive the film. A fantastic exercise. The only thing missing was Terry Nelhams at the end. (If you understand that allusion then you have definitely seen the film and remember the 1960s!)
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In 1961 the wealthy Winshaw family meet in the family home on the Yorkshire moors to celebrate Mortimer's 50th birthday. It is not a happy family, son Geoffrey was killed in the war and his apparently insane sister holds her brother Lawrence responsible. Mortimer's wife Rebecca cannot stand her in-laws, but her unruly children Harriet and Roddy seem to have inherited the family's ruthless streak.

Meanwhile, in Weston-super-mare, Michael Owen is traumatised on his ninth birthday by being dragged out of a screening of a sub-Carry On film, a murder mystery set in a mysterious mansion on the Yorkshire moors.

Switch to 1990 and the Winshaw family have done very well out of the economic changes of the eighties, while Michael has retreated from early success as a writer to become a recluse, failing to complete a biography/expose of the Winshaws. He sits in his flat, endlessly rewatching a scene of coitus interruptus, or rather coitus non initium from the aforementioned film, What a Carve Up!

Jonathan Coe uses this set up to write a massively entertaining, completely OTT, satire of the excesses of the eighties. Different members of the Winshaw family personify different aspects of the darker regions of the late Thatcherite period. Dorothy is, in a particularly stomach churning section, an unscrupulous proponent of factory farming (with dire consequences for Michael's father). Mark is an arms dealer, merrily equipping Saddam Hussein, and peripherally involved in the Westland and Matrix Churchill scandals(with dire consequences for the husband of Michael's friend). Henry is at the forefront of the commercialisation of the NHS. (With dire consequences for Michael's sort of girlfriend). Hilary personifies the Murdoch media, and is a remarkably prescient forerunner of the appalling Katie Hopkins.

Coe makes some serious points, many of the more dreadful acts of the virtually pantomimically villainous Winshaws are, according to the notes at the end, based on real events. However he also brings a massive amount of fun to writing his over-blown tale. The country house theme is a connecting thread throughout the book. It starts almost with a nod to the quintessential eighties TV drama, Brideshead Revisited with its location at Castle Howard. It then descends to the gothic setting for the titular film before shrinking to a game of Cluedo, eventually growing back to full size for the novel's climax in a real life maze of secret passages.

Coe's writing is full of references to other authors, at one point it feels like a Carry-on film scripted by Paul Auster as the ludicrous and seemingly unconnected story threads rub against and spark off each other. There are references on the way to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is also a strong whiff of a West Midlands childhood, bringing to mind Coe's other work, Sathnam Sanghera and even Nigel Slater's Toast. In a strange way, the other book this brought to mind was the History Man. While at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Winshaws are used to ridicule the faults of the 80s in the same way as Howard Kirk personified some unedifying themes of the 70s.

What a Carve Up is a masterpiece of outrageous plotting as Coe frantically ties together disparate strands with what appear to be ridiculous coincidences which turn out to be the result of heroically Machiavellian machinations.

Alongside the satirical barbs, and the narrative fireworks there is some good, old fashioned, straightforward beautiful writing here. A car journey with a fractious father law is a comedic delight. A scene in a broken down tube train is wonderfully claustrophobic. A death in a hospital is tear inducingly poignant.

If I had any criticisms, they would be firstly that Coe's satirical edge is a little blunt. The Winshaws are just a bit too stereotypically villainous. But then maybe that's just in keeping with the larger than life style of the book. Secondly at times it felt that Coe was trying a bit too hard, throwing so many different stories at the reader that it became rather fragmentary.

Overall though,the verdict has to be that this is great fun, whilst also carrying a bitter satirical edge.
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on 7 October 2015
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 January 2016
I’ve read Coe before: Expo 58 and Number 11. He’s a smart writer, one I know as I’m reading that some of his nuances and deeper meanings are slightly beyond me. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy his writing – I’ve just read my third Coe so I MUST enjoy him! – but this I found a little more straightforward to grasp than Number 11 and a funnier read than Expo 58. It changed genre in my head several times as I read, as various narrators and their stories took precedence and added to a picture of a high-born and powerful family with roots spreading out across British society.

A failing writer is unexpectedly offered a commission to write a book about the history of the Winshaws, one of the country’s most influential families. One member deals arms, another is a vitriolic and sensationalist journalist, still another a factory farming trend-setter.

Through various Winshaw family members and Michael, we see their histories from the 1940s to their present day in the 1990s. Someone commissioned Michael to write his book – but why?

I was hugely impressed as the very separate strands managed to knit themselves together into a whole by the end – there were lots of moments of clarity as I could see pieces slotting into place and making sense.

The build-up of character is also excellent, there’s a murder mystery mixed in here with stories about failing marriages, gangsters, politics, art, seduction, and some wickedly despicable family member you really want to see get what they deserve.

And as the story turns yet again, you realise some of your wishes just may come true.

An ending comes that turned my head a little – a speedy finale that ties up loose ends and concludes with a final scene that I wasn’t quite sure added the closure I wanted, but was certainly memorable.

This could make a stunning film – some amazing roles here for actors, with lots of scope for time-slip between characters, periods and scenes.

I audio-read this, and enjoyed the narrator's voices, which suited the characters well and were differentiated to give a separate personality to each.

Dark, comic and brilliant. I’m glad I stuck with it through the parts that didn’t seem to flow together, as it did all become a glorious black hole of just-desserts by the end.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 December 2015
Sometimes you read a book that you dislike to start with, but end up loving. That's why I persisted with this novel - and by the time I realised it wasn't going to improve, I was so far through I thought I might as well finish. In fact, my dislike only increased throughout the 400 plus pages. The first problem was that I never really understood what the book was trying to be - I gathered it was attempting to be funny, but it just wasn't. Was it farcical or satirical, was it trying to make a real political point? Whatever it was trying to do, it failed - for me at least.

The story centres on a young writer who has been commissioned to write a history of the Winshaws, an extremely powerful and thoroughly horrible British family. There are various sections focussing on different family members, but also on the writer (Michael) himself, and his own history and present. It's all very confused. There's also reference to a film that Michael watched as a child and later becomes obsessed with, which in some ways parallels events in his real life. The film's title - 'What a Carve Up' - represents the way that a small elite has 'carved up' Britain's institutions between them, to the detriment of ordinary people.

It's a stupid, unbelievable story with detestable and totally unrealistic characters. I'm a socialist and no fan of the types of character the Winshaws represent, but even I don't think wealthy, privileged people are this utterly horrible - they're human beings like any other group of society. Serious topics like the arms trade, the 1990s Iraq war, intensive farming methods, and exploitation of young people are mingled in with the farcical plot. This just cheapens these topics.

I know lots of people loved this book, and I myself like Jonathon Coe's other novels, but for me I just couldn't find anything to like here. My sense of humour just failed on this one and it didn't work for me. I wouldn't personally recommend it, but I suggest reading some positive reviews too before making your mind up as they must see something that I can't. However be warned that this is not to everyone's taste, as it wasn't to mine. It just failed to make any positive impression on me.
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on 15 May 2017
I couldn't see what all the fuss was about; a mildly amusing comedy in the home counties with lashings of colour writing. Didn't do it for me, I'm afraid. I just didn't see the point.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 January 2008
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.
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My original introduction to Coe's work was the excellent The Rotters' Club. Reading it, one of the things that struck me was the way Coe was able to bring a historical perspective to bear on (what I thought was) a recent period - namely, the mid-70s. He does the same in this book for the 80's and early 90's, and it's remarkable how assured his touch is, considering most of his readers will have their own impressions of Mrs Thatcher's reign and the way it changed the UK for ever. But that's not the only ingredient in this tale.

Coe personalises his history by telling the story of Michael Owen, his interaction with the Winshaw family, his hesitant relations with his neighbour and his obsession with the film of the title, which he saw part of on his ninth birthday before being pulled out of the cinema. The echoes of that experience stay with him throughout his life, and turn up in other tales (a Winshaw even attempts to visit the set of the film at one point) in an oddly compelling fashion. The way in which Owen's story is pencilled in makes him a fully-realised character (by contrast, the Winshaws are - probably intentionally - almost cartoonish in their wickedness, although memorable in their own ways as well). And the deft way in which Coe interweaves big themes - love, greed, loneliness, regret - throughout the stories and connects disparate incidents together make this a compelling read, leaving a lasting impression of a tightly constructed, immensely satisfying book.
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on 16 November 1999
Jonathan Coe is a genius - producing an extremely complex yet accurate dissection of an epoch - while at the same time writing a book which is dazzlingly entertaining. The Winshaws, whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life in Thatcher's Britain, are mesmerisingly awful. And though they are clearly comic figures, and therefore larger than life, at the same time they are all too recognisable and real. Coe's success is in marshalling this cast of characters into an enormously wide-reaching narrative and hingeing it together in the figure of Michael Owen, who is commissioned to write the family history by mad Aunt Tabitha. He uncovers a writhing can of worms, and finds his own life profoundly affected by the activities of the ruthlessly selfish Winshaws. Other attempts to satirise 80s Britain seem pathetic in comparison with this. This is REAL satire - excoriating, totally realistic and wickedly, bitingly, funny.
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on 10 May 2013
This is a clever book that makes a profound statement on the Thatcherite era that has (arguably) left us with many of the problems we face today. The book is about a rich, privileged and downright nasty family called the Winshaws who, through their obsessions with making money and gaining power, indirectly cause the Gulf War; cause thousands of people to lose their pensions, and cause people to die. The family are eventually held accountable for their actions in a very....grisly way. The book is macabre to say the least so it might not be something you want to read immediately after dinner. One way in which the novel could be criticised is that the Winshaw family members are too evil to be credible as human beings. While I believe that this is a fair criticism, I think more can be gained from seeing each Winshaw allegorically. This can potentially offer a more enriching interpretation of the novel as the Winshaw characters can be read in several ways through an allegorical reading.
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