Wilberforce – introvert, wine snob, computer programmer-turned-millionaire – seems like a familiar comic creation: the kind of pompous misanthrope whose sheer unpleasantness is the overarching joke. So, it’s disorientating to realise, more than a dozen pages into Paul Torday’s new book, that it isn’t really a comic novel at all. It is, in fact, a bleak and surprisingly bitter study of prolonged alcoholic collapse.
Torday introduces Wilberforce in the advanced stages of his addiction. His friends and finances are at the point of exhaustion, his mental and physical deterioration has become critical – “in layman’s terms”, as his doctor tells him, “your liver is disintegrating”. Then, moving backwards through the four preceding years, we are shown the landmarks along his path to self-destruction: his wife’s death in a car crash; his entry into a clique of the shallow super-rich, and his consequent discovery of expensive red wine.
The dark ironies of Torday’s narrative are cleverly weighted, but Wilberforce’s psyche is never expanded much beyond this broad comic outline. His downfall remains curiously unaffecting. And a strange assonance between voice and story persists to the very end.