I first read Rose Tremain's Restoration a year or so after it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989. Throughout the '90's it remained one of my very favourite books. It's been a few years however since I last read it and, at a difficult point in my own life, it seemed to be the perfect book to revisit.

Around the first time of reading it, I was working part-time at Magdalene College, Cambridge on a project to catalogue the historical and political characters featured in ballads in Samuel Pepys' library. (Yes, Magdalene has Pepys' original book collection along with his book shelves. The collection was bequeathed to Magdalene (pronounced maudlin) on condition that it was kept as it would have been in Pepys' own lifetime). It was a wonderful job, and one that I was lucky enough to fall into completely by accident. I spent months quite literally locked into the library sniffing the wonderful odour of old bindings and paper, and becoming part of 17th century life. So much a part, that by the last few months I was even starting to spell 17th century - the day I jotted down a note about the lyons in Whipsnade Zoo was a bit of a turning point!

My memory of Restoration, which is set during the first decade after the restoration of Charles II to the British throne, was that it was scintillatingly brilliant. You felt as though you were at the heart of Restoration London and Cambridgeshire from the grim realities of the plague and the Great Fire to the gaudiness and butterfly life of the Court to the Russian wind sweeping across the bleakness of the Fens. Part of this was undoubtedly down to the skill of Rose Tremain's writing, but I asked myself looking back, how much was due to my own personal circumstances at the time, where I was inhabiting the 17th century on a daily basis?

Re-reading Restoration I wasn't disappointed. It is an unashamedly brilliant book. It lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day in 1989; and although I have enjoyed and read both novels, I still think that Restoration is the better book of the two.

The Fen country. Used under a Creative Commons license. Photographed by Mark Williamson on Flickr
Restoration tells the story of Robert Merivel, physician and wanna-be court hanger on. Awe-struck by his first meeting with the King, Merivel becomes a court sycophant. His life changes though when Charles II asks him to marry the King's young mistress, believing that Merivel will never fall for any woman. Unfortunately though, Merivel falls in love both with his wife (who doesn't love him) and Bidnold, the stately home that the King has given him. Cast away by the King, Merivel turns to his Quaker friend, Pearce, who has set up an extraordinarily enlightened asylum in the Cambridgeshire fen country; but Merivel's liking for women along with his loneliness will lead to exile from this place too, though the time that Merivel spends at Whittlesey will change his life and character forever. Forced back to London, Merivel finally discovers himself during some of the most momentous times in British history, he rises phoenix-like from the ashes of the Great Fire and is finally "restored" both to himself and to the people and places that he loves.

Restoration is a wonderful, rambunctious, funny tale. I also found it deeply heart-warming as Merivel makes that most difficult of all journeys of discovery - the quest to find yourself. It's an enthralling, beautifully written novel that takes you into the heart of a period of great change. It's the dawn of the Enlightenment, but it's also an age that is still looking back in some ways to the mores of medieval England. Merivel is at the heart of this change, part-medieval fool, part-Enlightenment man with his forward thinking views on science, medicine, philosophy and religion.

It's a novel about history, and how it impacts on daily life, it's about love and loyalty and intelligence. Most of all it's about redemption, and how, despite the vicissitudes of life, we can all find our own path back to well-being.

I was delighted to discover on finishing Restoration that Rose Tremain has now written a sequel. That will be reviewed here very soon....


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