More than Middling

3 08 2019

Middle England by Jonathan Coe


Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical teenage daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed new career in middle age, and his father Colin, whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum. And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.

Dealing with contemporary and ongoing events in a novel can be challenging (see this recent review of a largely unsuccessful effort) but Coe manages it here with some style. This is the third novel in the rather extended series of The Rotters’ Club (excellent) and The Closed Circle (much less impressive) and really represents a terrific conclusion to the trilogy (if indeed it turns out to be the final one).

The older and wiser (well, a little perhaps) characters have lost none of their original force and the dealings with their various parents and offspring are really well represented. All of the goings on are extremely smartly represented against the pre- and post-referendum backdrop which fuels much of the debate.

A really great read and a delight to be reunited with Benjamin and friends.

four stars


Carving it up

14 08 2016

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe


A novel about the hundreds of tiny connections between the public and private worlds and how they affect us all. It’s about the legacy of war and the end of innocence. It’s about how comedy and politics are battling it out and comedy might have won. It’s about how 140 characters can make fools of us all. It’s about living in a city where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street. It is Jonathan Coe doing what he does best — showing us how we live now. “Coe is among the handful of novelists who can tell us something about the temper of our times”. (Observer).

Not his best but this sort of sequel to the brilliant ‘What a Carve Up’ is still pretty good. The interconnectedness of it all is perhaps stretched too far but it is good fun with lots of satirical critique of the way we are plus some added and surprising spookiness.


It’s the future

28 06 2014

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe



London, 1958: unassuming civil servant Thomas Foley is plucked from his desk at the Central Office of Information and sent on a six-month trip to Brussels. His task: to keep an eye on The Brittania, a brand new pub which will form the heart of the British presence at Expo 58 – the biggest World’s Fair of the century, and the first to be held since the Second World War.
As soon as he arrives at the site, Thomas feels that he has escaped a repressed, backward-looking country and fallen headlong into an era of modernity and optimism. He is equally bewitched by the surreal, gigantic Atomium, which stands at the heart of this brave new world, and by Anneke, the lovely Flemish hostess who meets him off his plane. But Thomas’s new-found sense of freedom comes at a price: the Cold War is at its height, the mischievous Belgians have placed the American and Soviet pavilions right next to each other – and why is he being followed everywhere by two mysterious emissaries of the British Secret Service? Expo 58 may represent a glittering future, both for Europe and for Thomas himself, but he will soon be forced to decide where his public and private loyalties really lie.



It’s all a bit ‘Our Man in Havana’ in Brussels but no worse for that. Coe has produced another excellent novel about a reserved civil servant who comes alive in the optimistic Expo world.

(And just seen this blog about the Britannia pub which includes some interesting back story.)

four stars

Private lives

30 08 2010

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

From Amazon:

Maxwell Sim seems to have hit rock bottom. Estranged from his father, newly divorced, unable to communicate with his only daughter, he realizes that while he may have seventy-four friends on Facebook, there is nobody in the world with whom he can actually share his problems. Then a business proposition comes his way – a strange exercise in corporate PR that will require him to spend a week driving from London to a remote retail outlet on the Shetland Isles. Setting out with an open mind, good intentions and a friendly voice on his SatNav for company, Maxwell finds that this journey soon takes a more serious turn, and carries him not only to the furthest point of the United Kingdom, but into some of the deepest and darkest corners of his own past. In his sparkling and hugely enjoyable new book Jonathan Coe reinvents the picaresque novel for our time.

It is an amusing read yet painful and excruciating at times. Very enjoyable overall though and, as ever with Coe, extremely well written, carefully crafted and yet seemingly effortless in its delivery. Only minor let down is the really quite unnecessary post-modern authorial indulgence at the end. Highly recommended.

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