Another journey into 19th-century Yorkshire baroque from the author of Eating Mammals (2004).
Like T.C. Boyle, to whom he has been appropriately compared, Barlow paints personalities in broad strokes and doesn’t shun melodrama. His latest is the tale of Rhubarilla, a Coca-Cola–like soft drink developed in 1869 by the dysfunctional Brookes family in conjunction with a hunchbacked dwarf named Roderick Vermilion. Despite his novels’ excesses, the author conveys genuine affection for his grotesque characters and situates Rhubarilla’s creation within the shrewdly observed context of Victorian society, culture and business. (Barlow sketches with equal authority a music-hall performance, the workings of the temperance movement and the tentative early stirrings of modern advertising.) Isaac Brookes, age 50, is slightly bored with the wool trade and the time it requires him to spend in France, away from ailing wife Sarah and their two sons, ne’er-do-well Tom and illiterate but oddly gifted George. So when he literally stumbles across Vermilion in a train compartment, he’s ripe for the blandishments of a hunchbacked con artist who might just be a visionary businessman. In London, Roderick spends lavishly on Isaac’s credit, earning the wrath of drunken Tom (who thinks he’s the only one who should waste his father’s money), but also garners the insight that the world needs a refreshing, non-alcoholic drink. Many false starts later, Roderick has perfected the recipe and Isaac has cornered the market in rhubarb, an essential ingredient. But Sarah dies, Isaac suffers a stroke and, in the story’s darkest moment, upright but innocent George seems incapable of protecting Roderick from Tom’s jealous lies. Events improbably improve from this low point in Barlow’s surprisingly genial narrative (even Tom has his good points). The villain gets his comeuppance, George comes into his own, Roderick comes back and Rhubarilla is a smash, after a judiciously solicited plug from a popular singer.
Not noteworthy for either probability or restraint, but Barlow’s lively imagination will carry along those who appreciate risk-taking fiction.