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Review: Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare

inheritance nicholas shakespeare Review: Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare

Money and morality seem to be inextricably linked: the acquiring and spending of money invariably invites judgement from external parties and, often, from the person doing the spending themselves. Purchases, for example, especially large or frivolous ones, are necessarily justified through exhortations such as 'it was on sale' or 'I never buy anything for myself', or the always powerful 'Iearned'this money, and I'll do what I like with it!' It seems that the only proper way to have money come into one's possession is through'earning it through labour, and apparently the more slugging and desultory the better. Other less sober methods'borrowing on credit, marrying into money, a run of good luck at the casino, or chasing after a twenty dollar note being blown about in the wind'seem somehow less valid, inviting inquisition not only regarding how the money was acquired, but how it was, or will be, spent. Coming into money via an inheritance is also an iffy means: those born into money are looked down upon as having no idea as to the true value of money, whilst those who come into money at a later point are treated with wariness.

Inheritance, Nicholas Shakespeare's sixth novel, is, as might be surmised from its title, a novel about this last point, and takes great vigour in exploring the social and moral responsibilities surrounding not only money itself, but its provenance. Money, or at least its absence, is a driving force in Andy's life: his work as an editorial assistant at a boutique publishing house specialising in obscure self-help titles is less a means to pay rent than it is to offer him a leg up so that he might one day clamber up on to the back of the publishing industry. At least, this is what Andy, who has little hope of a promotion in the new future, continues to tell himself. His days are long, his deadlines numerous, but at least the pittance that he earns is undeniably his. However, money being the murky concept that it is, others in his life don't necessarily see things in quite the same way. Sophie, Andy's fiancee, for example, sees money less as something earned than as an entitlement. Fortunately for her, running into the arms of a Lehman Brothers executive results in her acquiring her fair share (or at least it would have when this book was being written) of the lucre she so desires. Poor Andy, having been dumped apparently due to his inadequate salary, is left to ruminate on to what degree the value of a person can be equated with the value of a pay-cheque.

But after a series of coincidences and oversights leads to Andy attending the painfully deserted funeral of a stranger, Andy finds that his fortune has changed, and not just to a small degree. Rather, it has changed to the rather significant sum of seventeen million pounds, all of it attributable to his having wandered quite haplessly'into the wrong funeral service. There is even less agency involved here than in, say, gambling, or even in picking up that errant twenty dollar note, and Andy feels somewhat ambivalent as a result. To his own mind, has done absolutely nothing to entitle him to this windfall, and he becomes convinced that it will beor at least should betaken from him. But one can justify any potential ethical misgivings if one tries hard enough, and soon Andy is living a new life of unbridled luxury. But even sports cars and flashy apartments lose their sheen after a while, and Andy finds himself longing to learn more about his benefactor, Christopher Madigan.

There's a schism of sorts in the book at this point, and it's a rather disconcerting one that the reader can't help but feel perhaps worked better in the author's head than it does on paper. Having tracked down Madigans maid, Andy begins pressing for information about his benefactor. The result is a melancholic story told at length over several bottles of wine, and which rather awkwardly takes the form of a biographical novella inexpertly stitched into the main narrative. We're shown how Andy's benefactor came to be a wealthy recluse, and the reasons behind the fact that his funeral was so poorly attended. However, given the fairly jolly and low-key narrative approach of the first half of the book, this latter half feels rather too earnest, and it's difficult to really accept it. The contrast between Madigan as the loathsome hermit with the supposed reality of his being a familial man with heart of gold is just a little too idealised, and this, combined with the constant barrage of narrative coincidences (Inheritance is, perhaps, a case where eschewing the 'rule of three' would result in a rather more streamlined and nuanced book) begins to undermine the book. Perhaps the two stories would have worked better as parallel narratives rather than as a long, painful flashback. Moreover, the focus on Madigans background, while interesting in and of itself, plays virtually no bearing on the plot, and one cant fathom why its given such prominence for any reason other than the author wanted it to. A further weakness is Shakespeares determined but ultimately unsuccessful effort to integrate an additional narrative thread into the novelthat of a book written by an old schoolteacher of Andys, on which he is intent on somehow rewriting as an autobiography of Madigan.'Shakespeares prose is also a strange beast, with some bizarre sentence constructions that go beyond an authorial quirkmany seem rather more as though the author has simply stetted any queries raised by the proofreader. Typos abound, and ambiguities and strange verb tenses are never far away. This, combined with the entirely different voices used for the Andy and the Madigan narratives, result in an uneven work.

Inheritance starts out as a fine and promising novel (overlong and circuitous prologue aside), but ultimately the book seems to try a little too hard to stitch together past and present into a neat whole. While Shakespeare works to make a point about responsibility and morality, and the way the two can be tied so curiously to money, Inheritance struggles under the weight of this effort, with the author more often than not resorting to sometimes painfully simplistic characterisation, awkward quotations, and unrealistic coincidences to show how an individual can be tested in such a way. Its a shame, because there are many good moments in this novel, especially in the first half, and the central conceit would seem to promise a thoughtful but entertaining read.

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With thanks to Random House Australia for the review copy.

Purchase Inheritance.

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