A complex tale of obsession is precisely distilled into a haunting character portrayal, in this second novel from the gifted British author (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2007).
The subtitle denotes four years (2006–02) in the life of protagonist and narrator Wilberforce (his first name initially withheld), who creates a successful computer software company, sells it in order to accept an irresistible offer and thereafter devotes himself to the cultivation and enjoyment of a prized wine collection. That collection is bequeathed, with strings attached, to Wilberforce by his older friend Francis Black, a bachelor whose inherited wealth has gone to amass a huge array of choice Bordeaux (and other wines), kept in a vast vault (“undercroft”) beneath his family’s estate Caerlyon, outside London. Caerlyon suggests “Corleone” so much so that the reader suspects there’s more to Francis Black than the benign mentor he appears to be. Torday keeps us guessing, as precise imagery suggests the younger man’s immersion in what is perhaps a religious vocation, perhaps a surrender to temptation. Or both, we surmise, as Wilberforce’s story unspools in reverse order, beginning with the upshot of his love for Catherine, a vibrant beauty betrothed to another man; offering a poignant picture of his unhappy foster childhood and all but empty young adulthood; and climaxing with a (brilliantly described) grouse hunt, during which an episode of “innocent happiness” vibrates with the strains of an ironic prophecy of his future. Eventually, we learn Wilberforce’s first name and understand his reluctance to reveal it. But the heritage of sorrow that imprisons him within limits he both has and has not set for himself makes us think of Fitzgerald’s “great” (and, ultimately, unfulfilled) Gatsby. This elegantly conceived novel also reminds us from time to time of another Great Expectations, minus that classic novel’s unconvincing happy ending.