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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Recommended Book #2 - Middle England by Jonathan Coe

What can a novel have to do with debating?

More than you might think. The best sort of novels contain debates, even are debates, as different characters and different groups of people present different points of view and different responses to what is happening in the world. As in a debate, the reader watches and listens, and can make up her own mind about what she thinks.

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, is that sort of novel. Opening in 2010 and ending in September 2018, it spans the last eight years from the point of view of Benjamin Trotter, a fifty something man from Birmingham, and his family and friends. As well as presenting their ups and downs and ins and outs, the novel debates all the major issues of the last few years in Britain: identity politics; anxieties about immigration; the effects of austerity; the divide between the generations; the divide between London and the rest of England; and above all, looming over it all, Brexit. By the end of it, you will have a much clearer understanding of the deep causes of Brexit, as Coe makes it clear that it is about much more than the European Union, and is rather a symptom of a profound malaise in British society. Apart from anything else, the novel reminds us Londoners that (there’s a clue in the title) there is life outside the M25; and that this should come as news is part of the problem.

All this makes it sound like a rather earnest read. But in fact it is extremely funny, laugh out loud in places. Two children’s clowns pick a fight in a garden centre; a speed awareness course is an unlikely setting for romance; a young couple on a luxury cruise find their dinner table steadily emptying night after night as their elderly companions die off; a middle aged couple, trying to recreate their teenage romance, have an embarrassing encounter in a wardrobe. Benjamin Trotter is one of my favourite characters in fiction: sweet, romantic, hopelessly naive but very endearing.

Middle England is an entertaining and enlightening read for Christmas. It will make you laugh, and it will make you understand Britain much better. Britain certainly needs some understanding friends right now.

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