I’ve just finished Paul Torday’s The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, my first book on Kindle. Its cartoonish cover is deceptive, perhaps deliberately so, because the story is downright depressing, sometimes painful to read.
The story is told backwards by the eponymous protagonist cum narrator. We first meet Wilberforce in the first chapter, set in 2006, as a 37 year-old alcoholic who is literally drinking his life away. He squandered 6,000 pounds on two bottles of rare wine, part of his daily intake of five to six bottles. He has no social life and his finances are in a mess. His liver is “melting”, and the chapter ended with strong hints that he will die soon. How did the come to this sorry state?
In the next two chapters, set in 2004 and 2003, we learn that Wilberforce was a lonely computer genius who became rich by building a highly successful software business. One day he stumbled upon the wine shop of Francis Black, who would become his mentor in wine connoisseurship, and befriended several other people. He realised that for the past 15 years, he had led an empty life of nothing but work. Having tasted friendship and hobby (wine) for the first time, he truly saw a glimmer of hope:
Do you ever have that feeling? Have you had that absolute sense of conviction: that, after all, life is going to turn out really well for you?
This is painful to watch because we readers already know how he’ll end up. Indeed, everything went downhill from this point. He betrayed his business partner and sold his company for half of its worth, just to buy Francis’ immense wine collection (because Francis was dying of cancer and persuaded Wilberforce to “inherit” his mortgage-ridden estate, along with the wine). He stole one of his new-found friends’ fiancee Catherine, who would later be killed in an accident caused by Wilberforce’s alcoholism, though he denied his responsibility. From then on, there was nothing to stop him from becoming the drunkard we know in the first chapter.
At this point the readers are led to see, or even hate, Wilberforce as a selfish, heartless bastard, that he deserves his demise. But the same question arises: how did he become like this?
The final chapter, set in 2002, reveals a bit more about his childhood. He was an orphan who grew up in solitude in a loveless foster home, which supposedly explains his lack of social skills and sense of self. There are also strong hints of Asperger’s syndrome. Indeed, he is so empty that at one point he even said:
Because I am nobody, I can choose to be whom I like. I can choose my life to be what I want it to be. I can become anybody; I can do anything.
Perhaps this explains his callous disregard for others. Those people, however, also played a part in his downfall. I suspect that Francis, the father figure whom Wilberforce sorely needed, had manipulated him into buying his debt, seeing the “empty” Wilberforce as perfectly gullible for this purpose. Wilberforce also confused normal acts of socialising with gestures of genuine friendship, and felt betrayed when he overheard one of his friends refer him as “Mr. Nobody”. Wilberforce would later betray him back.
So is this all Wilberforce’s fault? Could he have avoided such outcome? The reader is left to judge. There are, however, hints of inevitability in the book. What Francis said sums it up best: “As soon as the wine is opened, it begins to die.” Wilberforce is like that wine, cellared for more than 30 years. The moment he was opened, exposed to the social world, his irreversible destruction began.
Bottomline: It’s a great read, but I find the plot a bit contrived at times. It’s hard to believe the socially-naive Wilberforce could have built such a successful business. Why would Catherine, from an upper-class family, fall in love with someone as dull as Wilberforce? His decision to sell his business cheap just to pursue an expensive hobby should have been a warning to her. Neither is Wilberforce’s transformation into an alcoholic very convincing. The book seems to suggest that it was because he “over-corrected” his lack of leisure life in the past 15 years. But would a tremendously successful businessman like him lose self-control that easily?
Still, I enjoyed this book, especially since in some ways I can relate to Wilberforce’s feelings. Some of his monologues feel all too familiar to me:
Once again the image of a secret garden came into my mind. Everybody else in the world was in on the secret and had a key to its iron door. Only I, a person of no accomplishment except being able to add up large numbers in his head, prowled around on the outside and was never to be admitted.