This very fine novel was first published in 1989. Writing some twenty years later about this book, the author states that this story was her 'fictional response to the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in our society during the Thatcher years, from which we have never recovered and for which we are now beginning to pay a terrifying price'. Four years on from making this statement of course, society is no better off.  Which ensures that a story such as as this has as much relevance now as it did 25 years ago, and 325 years before that when it is set in the equally greedy time of the reign of Charles II.

When the story begins, in 1664, Robert Merivel is a 37 year old physician. Since he was a child he has been fascinated by how the body works, over the years developing his knowledge and an enormous respect for the human condition. The restoration of a king to the throne of England in 1661 awakens a frenzy of celebration and hedonism in the population at large which Robert is desperate to become a part of. Fortunately for Robert, his father is a glove maker to the King, which does improve his chances of getting close to the King. In a peculiar piece of good luck he cures one of the royal spaniels and finds himself firmly in place at the royal court. But he is really no more than a plaything of the King, a pawn to be used as the King sees fit, and in the process Robert loses some of himself. He finds himself married to one of the King's mistresses, ostensibly to keep another mistress happy. As a reward for this service he is knighted, given lands and a house miles away in Norfolk and forbidden from falling in love with his wife. Naturally he does fall in love, and in a single kingly stroke, all his good fortune is taken away from him.

What follows is Robert's rediscovery of himself and his own personal restoration to the man that was always there, but had been temporarily waylaid by the madness and greed around him. Destitute and homeless, he makes his way to where John Pearce, his oldest friend, a Quaker who had been a fellow medical student with him, now lives - an establishment that cares for mentally disturbed people. All the way through the novel John Pearce acts a bit like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio - that little conscience just sitting out of sight on Robert's shoulder. Robert always knows that John's way is the right way; he just has some trouble getting on the right path!

The journey of restoring body and soul is long and fraught with the crazy house not being the end of the road for Robert by any means. But slowly and surely,  Robert Merivel, Physician and Surgeon, finds happiness and peace and his own self. Robert is a fully rounded character, with his fair share of human failings and strengths. He encourages us all to look into ourselves and find the goodness within, as well as the moral courage to make a stand.

This is a long book, not a light summer read, but one to be savoured and lingered over. The research into 17th century life, in the country, the hideous cities, the court life, treatment of the sick, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, dress, diet, transport, is outstanding. As is the writing. The author is a very classy writer, and I am very much looking forward to reading the  recently published sequel called simply 'Merivel'.


OH DEAR SILVIA by Dawn French

Review copy kindly supplied by Penguin Books NZ via Booksellers New Zealand.

Dawn French - everyone's funny lady, mainstay of British light television, and yet, like many comedians, also brilliant at serious thought, producing work that has considerably more depth to it than the laughs generated. Should we be surprised then that her second book is a serious book? Poignant and reflective, it highlights how in life the wires that hold our relationships with family and those dear to us can become quite tenuous, and how difficult it can be to repair those bonds. And that is often because we don't know what caused them to bend and break in the first place, so of course can't then fix them.

This story is all about Silvia, and how every single meaningful relationship she has had in her life is in absolute tatters. Strangely, Silvia is in a coma, lying in a hospital bed, in a vegetative state. So, rightly or wrongly, we never actually hear from Silvia herself as to how or why she is in this current predicament. For the purposes of the story she is a prop, but a prop who is the focus of the visitors that come to see her, to talk/shout/cry/reflect/scream/laugh, as they come to terms with the fact that Silvia may not be around for too much longer.

The cast of 'loved ones' is not huge, but varied and rich in complexity, damaged and vengeful, loving and protective, hurt and sad. So through their stories, we find out exactly how Silvia ended up in this small hospital room facing her own demise. There is her ex-husband Ed, her estranged daughter Cassie and absent son Jamie, her older, completely bonkers sister Jo, her lover Cat, her cleaner Tia, and overseeing all with her warmth and humanity the gorgeous nurse Winnie who, a bit like the chorus that features in Greek theatre, holds the whole thing together. 

But let us not forget that the book has been written by a woman renowned for her comedy, both in writing and performing. This story reeks of Dawn French's voice. This may be distracting for some, but I loved it. I could hear her voice saying large chunks of the dialogue or even doing an audio version of the book. I could see in my mind's eye exactly how the nutty sister Jo looks and behaves. There are some truly hilarious moments in this story, that may well have you laughing out loud. There is a page of exquisite writing when Ed is looking at Silvia's hands lying on outside of the sheets - a page of writing about her hands - how do you make a page of writing about a pair of hands so beautiful? But it epitomises so gently and poignantly the intimacy of a marriage or relationship. We know from her comedy how cleverly Dawn French captures the human condition, and here she shows she can also do it in writing.

This is a great read, not too deep, not too shallow, but with just enough pathos, loose endings tied up, and the power of love and forgiveness to make it amazingly satisfying. Ah yes, you think when you finish it, that had a little bit of everything, and in just the right quantities.



This book is also known as 'Seize the Day' depending on the publisher.

 I work closely with terminally ill patients, helping them compile biographies of their lives to leave their families. And yet this process is as much about the patient as it is about the legacy being left. Is there anything more cathartic and indulgent than telling a complete stranger stories about your life, and then seeing it in writing and adorned with photos? For the patient it gives dignity and honour at a difficult time. For me, and I imagine other biographers, it is perhaps one of the most humbling and humane things that can be done for another person. And brings home to me, so much younger than most of the patients I deal with, the title of this book - how the dying teach us to live. Death is a subject that in our Western civilisation bubble, we choose not to think about until we are suddenly confronted with it. In the flood of emotions that corkscrew through us, we find death is something we are really quite ill equipped to deal with. This beautifully written, and at times achingly sad book lifts the lid on, quite simply, what it is like to die. The author is a psychologist/psychotherapist who specialises in caring for palliative care patients. She works mainly in hospice settings in France. This book has been translated from French. This woman has compassion in buckets, and it seems to me walks a very fine line between her professional role in caring for the patient, and her instincts as a human being to nurture and love those she is caring for. She takes a number of patients of various ages suffering from various illnesses - cancer, aids, motor neurone - and shows us that one's last journey need not be as sad, awful, and heartbreaking as we think it is. By giving these patients dignity, talking to them, letting them talk, not wallowing in sadness when with them, the whole business takes on new and uplifting meaning. The most important things I got out of this book? The importance of a smile, the importance of the touch of hand on hand, and what it really means to be human.