Jonathan Coe’s great coming-of-age novel “The Rotters’ Club” charted the agonies and the ecstasies of Benjamin Trotter and his Birmingham school friends in 1970s Britain. Capitalizing on the book’s richly earned success, Coe resurrected his cast and continued their midlife adventures and crises throughout the early years of this century in “The Closed Circle.”
Each of those novels said as much about the state of the nation as it did the state of the characters. As turbulent events over recent years have turned Coe’s homeland into a disunited kingdom, creating social unrest and political stalemate, one silver lining is the author’s decision to channel the chaos, capture the current climate and bring his older but by no means wiser gang back for another wild jaunt.
“Middle England” opens in 2010 and follows numerous individuals of varying backgrounds and allegiances over the course of eight years. Two characters are afforded more page time. Benjamin, who is now in his 50s, is slogging away on a grand, sprawling and possibly misjudged musical and literary project. When it finally sees the light of day, he goes from failed novelist to Man Booker Prize nominee — and in doing so gets his first taste of the unpredictability of modern times. Meanwhile, his art historian niece Sophie meets driving instructor Ian on a speed-awareness course and opposites attract. But at a conference in France she gets to know Adam, an American musicologist, and finds him more on her wavelength; closer to home she comes to realize that her mother-in-law, Helena, is a dyed-in-the-wool racist.
As Coe takes us through the years, we also encounter a host of familiar faces and new friends. There is Benjamin’s friend Doug, a left-wing political journalist who turns to the dark side by sparking a romance with a Tory MP. His radical hotheaded daughter, the superbly named Coriander, turns her back on her perfidious parent and loses herself in misguided activism. Elsewhere, Benjamin’s childhood chum Charlie wages war against a rival children’s entertainer while locked in a tougher struggle to make ends meet, and Benjamin’s aging father Colin vows to stay strong enough to vote for his country’s future.
Coe covers a lot of ground, tracing messy fictional lives but also restaging elections, riots, the London Olympics and, of course, the game-changing, nation-dividing European referendum — the result of which leads Sophie and Ian to attend “post-Brexit counseling” and prompts Benjamin to make a more drastic move. It is here that Coe is at his sharpest but also his most strident. However, when he adopts a more measured tone, his characters breathe and their reactions and predicaments convince and delight.
“It was tempting to think,” Coe writes, “at times like this, that some bizarre hysteria had gripped the British people.” He has scrutinized his countrymen and produced an incisive and often scabrously funny satire and a compelling portrait of the way we live now.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Jonathan Coe.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 429 pages, $27.95.