Middle England by Jonathan Coe: A review

How have I not met Jonathan Coe before? And how was I unaware that Middle England is actually part of a series, the third book in that series? Never mind, the book works perfectly well as a stand-alone. But now I really want to go back and read those other two books.

Coe's writing is humorous, insightful, and humane. This book deals with the effects of politics on families and on England and can be extrapolated to extend to other Western countries. America, for example. Reading the book gave me (finally!) a sense that I better understood the human issues around Brexit, as well as perhaps the human issues driving the wave of white exceptionalism in my own country. 

Coe's novel begins in 2010 and the narrative includes perspectives from a daunting number of characters, but all of the characters are connected in some way to two: Benjamin Trotter, age 50, who we meet as he is leaving the funeral reception of his mother along with his father, Colin, a former car factory employee; and Doug Anderton, a lifelong friend of Benjamin, who is a left-leaning journalist with sources in the staff of Prime Minister David Cameron. Through these two characters and their families, friends, and connections, Coe explores the divisive and depressing politics of England from 2010 to the current day as Brexit threatens to tear the country apart, making it a disunited kingdom.

In spite of the sad and chaotic history during the time period about which he is writing, this is quite a funny book. It is filled with wry and forgiving humor that encompasses all sides of the political spectrum. There is one particular scene just about halfway through the book that left me just about literally rolling on the floor. I laughed until my stomach hurt and my cheeks were wet with tears. It was cathartic.

Coe writes compassionately about the fear and nostalgia driving the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe feeling in Britain. He sees it as a generational phenomenon. Certainly, the younger generation is much more accepting of multiculturalism and different lifestyles. In fact, he sees their ages as the most pertinent facts about his characters. From the elders like Benjamin's father who are implacable in their opposition to the European Union and in their support of Brexit, to Doug's young daughter Coriander whose views on racism, inequality, and identity politics were utterly uncompromising, and then to Doug's and Benjamin's generation caught in the middle, each generation is defined, at least to some extent, by the era in which it grew up and in which it felt most comfortable. 

I was completely absorbed in this study of the personal and the political as told through the stories of engaging characters whose efforts to carry on with their lives in the face of chaos offered me glimmers of light through the murk of these times and gave me hope for the future. I found it interesting that one of the characters, a son of immigrants says at one point that he thinks the country's essence may have been most powerfully expressed by Tolkien when "he created the Shire and populated its pastoral idyll with doughty, insular hobbits, prone to somnolence and complacence when left to their own devices but fierce when roused." Middle England as Middle Earth. Yes, Frodo lives.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. Your reviews are always compelling, Dorothy, well written, and never failing to give a sense of the book. I will probably never read most of these works, but I have the sense that if I did your review would have provided a detailed and accurate road map.

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  2. I am sold! I have heard of Jonathan Coe but never read him so far. I do love novels that help me understand social and political events, whether current or in the past. Another three books for my TBR, slight groan.

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    1. I'm looking forward to those two earlier books. This one was so well-written and reading it was an unalloyed pleasure.

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  3. Gee! Now you make me want to read this and I can't accommodate it, but I'll keep it in mind. Thoughtful review, Dorothy! I agree with David and Judy. :-)

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    1. Well, whenever you can work it into your reading schedule, I think you'll find it interesting.

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  4. This sounds good. I think that one of the roles for fiction is to examine these important social issues. With that, I agree that there is a generational factor involved in these things but I also think that too emphasis on that aspect of it might be a bit simplistic.

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    1. One thing life teaches us is that things are never simple. There are always multiple factors affecting any social issue.

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