Ancestral Vices is inarguably the most hysterical work of fiction I’ve come across. Tom Sharpe’s masterpiece not only tickles you to the bones but also punches you in the gut at the most unexpected times. The social satire has an unusual plot, with extraordinary characters and an underlying Orwellesque message that stings and stays as it is.
In fact, I found the Ancestral Vices strong enough to kick the capitalists as much as it does the communists. And that’s what makes it a must-read for those who love political satires. Here’s my review of Ancestral Vices by Tom Sharpe.
Prof. Walden Yapp is a hardcore socialist in post-World War England, dedicated to ideals like equality and social justice. Prof. Yapp receives a letter from one of the wealthiest individuals in Europe, Lord Petrefact. And upon his arrival, Lord Petrefact makes a remarkably unusual request – he wants Prof. Yapp to trace the Petrefact family history and how it became the most dominant corporate force in the whole of Europe.
Prof. Yapp’s stay at the colonial-era mansion is against his ideals, but he decides to indulge a bit, particularly in a hot bath in an “opulent” tub. However, it triggers what manifests as Prof. Yapp’s worst nightmare, which ends in Lord Petrefact getting severely wounded. It was the first time I read a book so funny that tears of laughter started to roll down my cheeks.
Nonetheless, Prof. Yapp managed to pull through and take up what appeared to be a dream job for him. He would get access to the family history of the Petrefacts, which would help him expose the corruption and exploitation on which their empire was supposedly built. His quest to dig deep leads him to Buscott, a small industrial town in rural England.
Lord Petrefact is aware of the consequences of letting the staunch socialist investigate the Petrefact family history. The dark past could bring disgrace and add to the controversy around the family, which is exactly what the old patriarch wants. Reason? He despises his relatives.
However, what starts as an investigation of the Petrefact family history, turns absolutely crazy when Prof. Yapp arrives in the town. Without giving away too much, all I can say is that it’s absolutely not what you’d expect from a socialist academician investigating the past of a capitalist family.
In his journey, Yapp finds himself in conflict with his own principles, often surprised that reality seems quite different from his perceptions. The novel explores subjects as diverse as dwarfish marital problems to corrupt capitalist nexuses. All in all, you’re in for a laughter ride navigating through hilarious characters and a delightful story.
What I Liked About Ancestral Vices
The Hillarious Characters
Ancestral Vices has some of the most hilarious characters. In fact, almost every character in the novel has a specific role, and in the process, they all end up tickling your guts. Here are my favourite ones.
Lord Petrefact is the satirical portrayal of all things bad about the business elite – arrogant, careless, hideous, merciless, and angry. Tom Sharpe masterfully combines these traits to create a disdainfully hilarious character. Petrefact reminds me of all the renowned business families and the numerous conspiracies surrounding them. The details of Petrefact’s character were so intricate that I could create a picture of him, which strangely looked like an older version of Arthur Shelby from Peaky Blinders.
Croxley is the right-hand man of Lord Petrefact, who’s much disgusted with his employer himself. However, the long-time confidante of the capitalist, despite all his struggles, stays absolutely loyal to the family, no matter what. But that doesn’t stop him from taking a veiled dig at Lord Petrefact whenever possible, like when he deliberately makes satirical blunders at the dinner, leaving his boss fuming.
Willy “the PORG” Coppet
For many readers, Willy Coppet, the dwarf, or in the words of Prof. Yapp, a person of restricted growth (PORG), might be the best character in the novel. Most certainly, though, he is the one you’d feel bad for. The comical portrayal of Willy is almost too dark, and the way the character’s journey was completed broke my heart. It’s as if like a symbolic representation of the life of a common man, who’s neither got the riches of the Petrefacts nor the intellectual capacity of socialist professors. All the common man’s got is a pitiful life, which often lies at the mercy of the influential elite,
Rosie Coppet’s the normal-sized wife of Willy, the PORG, the heroine of the novel if you can call her that. The author absolutely nailed her characterization, giving the reader a glimpse of what raw innocence could look like. The woman dearly loves her abnormal husband but is also ready to fulfil the needs of her guest, Prof. Yapp, whatever that may be. She is probably the funniest of the lot and almost feels effortless. Again, Rosie is also quite symbolic of the proletariat, often charmed and misled by the intellectuals and wealthy.
The Brilliant Storyline of Ancestral Vices
While there’s plenty of laughter and entertainment in Ancestral Vices, nothing seems unnecessary in the novel. From Prof. Yapp’s quirky obsession with his computer to the innocent sensuality of Rosie, nothing felt out of place, thanks to the storytelling prowess of Tom Sharpe. Not for once did I lose the grip of the plot, nor did I have to drag myself through any part.
If you’ve read George Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984, you know how hopeless it feels to realize the truth of power. You feel the same hopelessness at the end of Ancestral Vices, but you sure don’t feel as bad. That’s because Sharpe manages to tickle you at the most desperate moments, making you laugh immediately after a shocking event. However, you do feel a tinge of sadness in your heart, which stays with you for a long time.
Ancestral Vices was first published in 1980, which was an era before wireless communication took over humankind. Thus, the colloquial details of the suburbs, desktop monitors, and the lack of modern technology, are very nostalgic.
What I Did Not Like About Ancestral Vices
Nothing! There wasn’t a single thing that I could put my finger on. Ancestral Vices is as perfect as a novel can get, even without being great as The Godfather or The Idiot. A story doesn’t always need to be great because sometimes good is enough. Ancestral Vices is a good novel you’ll enjoy every time you pick it up. In fact, after reading the novel, I’m compelled to explore other Tom Sharpe works.
Language and Readability
Tom Sharpe has written the novel quite beautifully. The language is simple, elegant, and palatable even to beginners or young audiences. I can definitively recommend Ancestral Vices to those looking to start reading. The novel grips you enough to make it a thorough enjoyment. It’s a light-hearted read, with a plot strong and compelling enough to keep you engaged.
About the Author
Tom Sharpe (1928-2013) was a British satirical novelist who worked as a social worker and teacher in South Africa. He is known for his satirical take on English society, producing some of the best satires of the 20th century. He is widely regarded as the greatest English satirist of the last century, a natural successor to Thomas Love Peacock. Some of Tom’s most renowned works include the Wilt series (1976-2010), Porterhouse Blue (1974), Blott on the Landscape (1975), and Vintage Stuff (1982). Tom Sharpe passed away on June 6, 2013.
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