Rose Tremain returns to historical fiction with her latest novel 'Merivel' and to a wonderful character she created for one of her previous novels: Sir Robert Merivel, whom we first met in Restoration; however, it is not essential to have read 'Restoration' to enjoy this latest book. Our hero (or anti-hero), Robert Merivel, is a scoundrel, but he is also a physician and courtier at King Charles II's court. In 'Restoration' we saw Merivel rise from relative obscurity to find favour with King Charles, followed by a fall from grace, and then of his restoration to favour. In this new story, as in the previous book, we see that Merivel is well aware of the fact that if he has prospered in life, it is because he possesses the enviable talent of being able to amuse the King of England.
In 'Merivel' our story begins in 1683; we are moving towards the end of King Charles' reign and Merivel is now a man in late middle age, wondering where the years have gone and what now to do with his life. Although Merivel can see the wisdom in leading a more sober existence in his later years, he is not yet ready to lead the quiet life and is still keen for adventure and escapades. Encouraged by his daughter, Margaret, and with the agreement of the king, Merivel heads off to France where he finds himself at Versailles and the splendour of the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Expecting to be marvelled by life at the French court, Merivel is disappointed at the sordidness behind the splendour, and he is dismayed by the gaggle of squabbling fortune hunters surrounding the king. However, there are compensations in the form of a lady botanist, who is an attractive distraction from all that is going on around him and so, of course, we see Merivel setting off in pursuit of another sexual adventure. But there is the small matter of the lady's husband to contend with... And did I mention the big, brown bear that Merivel manages to acquire on his travels?
Rose Tremain has a marvellous eye for detail and she has written an engaging picaresque tale, full of roguish adventures, intrigue, comedy, romance and fleshly delights, but although parts of this story burst with life, it does have its darker moments too. In 'Restoration' Rose Tremain created a wonderfully profligate, yet generous-hearted rogue, with his stockings, knee breeches and flouncy ruffles, and it is good to see him back in the saddle in 'Merivel'; we may not always approve of his actions but we find it difficult to be too hard on the perpetrator of the deed. But is this book as good as 'Restoration'? Well it's a long time since I read 'Restoration', but 'Merivel' is a marvellously entertaining read and I'd say that, although sequels do not generally have the freshness and impact of the original novel, Rose Tremain has created a very worthy successor in 'Merivel' and, in doing so, has provided her readers with some first-rate entertainment.