Boasting casual storytelling mastery and the sharp-tongued wit of Tom Robbins, Peter Stafford-Bow presents an incredibly amusing and unpredictable tale in Corkscrew. For wine lovers or those who simply love a great story, this is a mad ramble through the tangled world of wine, taking readers across two continents and countless adventures of one exceptional character, Felix Hart.
The ability of Stafford-Bow to create memorable and visceral characters is notable, and along Felix Hart’s climb to the highest echelons of international wine retailing, there are plenty of other eccentric and unique foils that keep the plot moving along. We see Hart go from High Street dropout to wine savant, but his path to the top is anything but clear. Hart is a go-getter, a fighter, a pragmatist and an ambitious soul who rarely looks before he leaps. This is a story of personal growth and achievement, but it has a bit of tongue-in-cheek criticism of modern society.
Felix’s hunger to excel and prove something to himself drives his actions into dangerous realms, and even when he dips a toe into organized crime-infested waters, he doesn’t back down from his new calling in life. The underlying message of the book is that to reach the top, you must stand on the backs of others, or at least get your hands dirtier than you expected. That criticism of modern success isn’t delivered in a preachy or condescending way, namely because the author is the first to admit that some of this story is true.
The portraiture of cities that Stafford-Bow shares on the page is not always beautiful, but it is remarkably detailed, and he carefully paints each scene, complete with all the right cultural references, slang terms, and unique narrative style of a man who has seen the wider world with his own eyes. The dialogue between characters is true to real life, and is only included when it can measurably progress the plot. Despite being a moderately long book, it doesn’t feel as though words are wasted. Each line fits within the mood, enhancing the credibility of the author as a truly talented storyteller. The premise is original, and it pulls back the curtain (however fictitiously) on the seedy underbelly of the world’s finest vintages.
Felix as a precocious protagonist makes for excellent reading, and while parts of the novel seem embellished to fill in the blanks of truth, it generally reads like a scribbled-off memoir, frantic in its pace at times, and methodically musing in others. Like a good wine connoisseur, Stafford-Bow knows when to let the plot aerate and breathe, but also when to finish a chapter quickly, before moving on to something better.
There are very few grammatical errors and the syntax is unusual and diverse, making it nearly impossible to get bored. The cultural sensitivity of the author to other nationalities and cities is also on full display, except when taking potshots and making rib-nudging jokes. Corkscrew is a strange cross between a thriller and a farce, a delicate balance at the best of times, but Stafford-Bow pulls it off with panache – and a self-aware smirk on his face.