I’ve long been an admirer of Jonathan Coe’s writing, so I was delighted to receive a pre-publication e-book of his latest work, Middle England, from the publishers via NetGalley. It was out yesterday. We are back with the Trotter family, whose lives and those of their friends were the subject of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. Benjamin, the main character, is now fifty. Having sold a London flat at a vast profit, he’s bought a house in the country and is virtually retired. He’s at last over his Cicely obsession and considers himself happy. His sister Lois will never be happy as she hasn’t recovered from the trauma of the IRA Birmingham bombings back in the seventies. Her daughter Sophie is an art historian and academic and is the other main character, together with Benjamin’s old friend Doug, a successful and prosperous journalist.
The book opens in 2010 and is full of achingly topical references to events which now seem like ancient history. As we read of the racial tensions, ‘the fault line’ running through the country, the anger of those suffering from years of austerity, it’s pretty clear where all this is heading: yup, Brexit. So, this is a state-of-the-nation novel which is nevertheless mostly the state of the white, educated middle classes. There are unpleasant events: the nice Lithuanian couple told to ‘go home’; poor Sophie quite wrongly accused of making a transphobic remark and suspended from her job due to the machinations of Doug’s ghastly daughter. Benjamin feels the country has changed but then, he’s almost morbidly sentimental about his childhood and adolescence. One of the more remarkable things about the Trotters is the way they have kept in touch with people they’ve known for over thirty years.
I read this book quickly, which is easily done because it’s so well written. Yet there’s something about it which doesn’t quite gell. In places, we don’t so much get the zeitgeist expressed through the characters but shoved down our throats with what amounts to verbatim reportage. Then there’s clever Benjamin, whom you could smack for his indecision and obtuseness. He really hasn’t changed since we first met him and at the end of the book, he either starts a brave new life or cops out, depending on your point of view. I’ve taken a star off my review because I found the book ultimately depressing. I was also irritated by the ageism; just about every character over seventy is decrepit, bigoted and unpleasant. Coe is regarded as a humorous writer and there are many amusing moments in this book but for me, as a Remainer, it didn’t work as satire because it’s too true and sad to be funny.