Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Middle England - Jonathan Coe

I only learned that Jonathan Coe’s Middle England is the third book in a series that began in 2001 with The Rotters Cluband continued in 2004 with The Closed Circle after I began reading it. In retrospect, I can see that not being familiar with the backgrounds, relationships, and past experiences of the main characters from the first two books made it considerably more difficult for me to keep all of them straight in Middle England. Although Coe makes a valiant effort to tie the past to the present in Middle England , those readers who have already read the first two Rotters Club books are likely to perceive some of the book’s episodes differently (as in better or more precisely) than those reading Middle England as a standalone. But even as a standalone, this book is brilliant.

Jonathan Coe has written what many in Britain are calling its “state-of-the-nation” novel. Middle England begins with the 2008 financial crash and ends in late 2018 with Britain still unable (or perhaps unwilling) to figure out how to make the Brexit vote a reality. Benjamin Trotter, one of the book’s main characters, is a somewhat failed family man who now finds himself living alone and hoping to get his excessively long manuscript published. Ben spends much of his time as caretaker of his elderly father, a man who constantly complains that the England he remembers so well is being ruined by the outrageously high number of newly arrived immigrants to his country. The book’s other main character is Ben’s niece Sophie, a university lecturer who falls in love with a young man who shares many of the views of Ben’s father – despite vigorously disagreeing with those views herself. Most of the book’s more secondary characters appear in the previous Rotters Club books, but their relationships are largely defined in Middle England by their approval or disapproval of the Brexit vote. The “Remainers” and the “Leavers” only communicate by shouting at each other – and neither side is at all interested in what the other has to say. Long-term friendships are ending; parents, children, and siblings are no longer speaking; and marriages are ending in loudly contested divorces. It’s as if Britain had morphed into two separate countries. Sound familiar, America?

Jonathan Coe
The biggest surprise about Middle England, though, is how funny it is. Picture scenes like the one in which two children’s entertainers (one dressed as a clown, the other as a mad professor of sorts) come to blows and throw F-bombs and fists at each other during a little boy’s birthday party. Or what I consider to be the funniest sexual encounter scene I have ever read, during which two nearly-sixty-year-olds decide to recreate a sexual encounter from their high school days inside a cramped wardrobe. (Let’s just say that the results bear little resemblance to those of forty years earlier.) 

Another striking thing about Middle England is that its author treats both sides of the Pro-Brexit, Anti-Brexit argument with a measure of respect rather than taking a hardline approach in favor of either. He does the same, in fact, with the issue of immigration and national boundaries. Some of Coe’s  main characters feel strongly one way and others feel strongly the other way. Admittedly, the book’s more sympathetic characters all lean in the same liberal direction, but in the end most of them adopt a more moderate approach to those with opposing views than they started with.

Bottom Line: Middle England is a funny and thought-provoking novel in which American readers will see many parallels between life in today’s Britain and today’s America. The novel exposes the absurdity of politics in both countries (and the rest of the world, for that matter) while offering a little hope that more moderate voices will eventually return to some power and influence. Although it will help, an interest in politics is not a prerequisite for reading Middle England because it is an entertaining novel filled with interesting characters for whom the reader will come to care. 


  1. Thank you for the review. A new book and author gfor me.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. If you do read this one, I would love to hear what you think of it.