‘Think of Einstein,’ my father would say. He worked for the Bank of England and all too easily confounded any feeble assertions of mine, on economics or monetary policy, with a barrage of hard facts, dates and quotes. ‘Einstein’, he used to say, ‘didn’t care for facts either. Like you, he preferred to keep clear of them. In his case, however, it was to free his brain for thinking.’
I have no idea on what my father based this and I’m sure he was genuinely trying to console, but for years afterwards I avoided novels that mixed politics and facts, particularly historical novels. Writers should just make it up, I thought. Feelings were what counted: feelings, ideas, characters and story. But then, thankfully, I was given Rose Tremain’s best-selling and Booker short-listed novel Restoration, and, plunging in against my better judgement, was immediately hooked.
The novel is set during a period of great upheaval and terrible disasters – the Restoration, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London. The extravagantly sensuous and painfully honest narrator, Robert Merivel, struggles to achieve spiritual restoration while Charles II, his charismatic monarch and patron, is ultimately found to be decadent, fickle and scheming. Wonderfully drawn as these two main characters are, for me it is the animals that steal the show. Whether singing in captivity or galloping off to forage independently, the animals – portrayed without a scrap of sentimentality – pose a range of philosophical and moral questions.
The novel opens in London in 1664 with Merivel presenting us with a few key highlights of his early years, the first being a dissection of a starling, carried out when he was 9 years old.
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