The life of Merivel, narrator and protagonist of Rose Tremain’s novel by the same name, is told as a kind of picaresque. A picaresque often has no ending; it goes on and on. Merivel does end, though: dying, worn out from his agitated life, on a heap of dirty clothes in the establishment of Rosie, his laundress and one of many lovers. “The World is as it chooses to be,” she pronounces, “and he was one who knew it well.”
A blithe man, an enterprising man, and one whose brand of acid humor makes him a favorite of King Charles II, his patron and — insofar as a king can be — his friend, Merivel laces his account with a quiet underlying despair. His exploits, prodigally related, begin in hope but only as antechamber to no hope.