Book review: Middle England

I somehow missed this novel by Jonathan Coe, and only learned about it when a colleague suggested I read it, and lent me her copy.

This novel is set in London and ‘Middle England’, which I learned to be Birmingham, opens in 2010, in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis, and as London is gearing up for the 2012 summer Olympics. It spans the next six years as the UK gears up for the Brexit vote, and then addresses the fall-out.

It tells this story of modern-day England through an interesting cast of characters: Benjamin, a near-recluse writer who has been writing the same novel for the past thirty years and is now dealing with his elderly father following his mother’s death, his niece, art professor Sophie, is out to “make a success” of her latest relationship after a string of failures.

Benjamin’s friend Doug is a liberal political columnist who believes he is the voice of the common man, although even he realizes the hypocrisy of penning those pieces from his six million pound villa in an exclusive enclave of London. Then there’s his unhappy “social justice warrior” daughter, Corrie, attending a posh private school by day and rioting and looting against “racist police and elitist society” in her free time. She will later mature into a university student working to dismiss college professors who are not sufficiently “woke”.

The novel stands out for its strong writing and character development. And I enjoyed this glimpse into modern British malaise. My one gripe – perhaps intentional? – is that this novel is quite sweeping in its scope and storytelling from various points of view. Yet all the anti-Brexit characters are … well … often insufferable snobs, with a penchant for virtue-signaling. One pro-Brexit character is a racist, the other is suffering from dementia and living in the past.

I felt the author missed the opportunity to fully explore this interesting moment in time. I live in Italy, where anti-Brussels sentiment is strong (and not only amongst racists and Alzheimer-sufferers), and I felt a more balanced exploration of the two Brexit camps could have strengthened this novel. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed immersing myself in contemporary ‘Middle England’, and highly recommend this novel.

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