With Middle England, Jonathan Coe completes an accidental trilogy that began with 2001’s The Rotter’s Club and continued with 2004’s The Closed Circle. Accidental because, according to a short afterword, Coe “had no intention of continuing the series” – until his mind was changed by a theatrical performance of The Rotter’s Club at the Birmingham Rep and then the author Alice Adams whose kind words made Coe look again at The Closed Circle, a novel he hadn’t previously “considered a particular success”. These two things were joined by what was happening in the world at the time (Brexit) and Coe felt compelled to resurrect and add to the characters of the original books.
So: here is Benjamin again, still pining when we first meet him, for Cicely, his first love, still working on his magnum opus (an epic novel seeking to combine the personal and the political, with a vast soundtrack to match), now living in a mill by the Severn; here is Douglas, still a political pundit, wealthy but unhappily married, a daughter Coriander busy playing havoc amidst the London riots, developing the kind of prickly activism so prevalent today; here is Lois, also unhappily married, and her daughter Sophie, soon to be married to jovial everyman, Ian; here is Philip, busy with a fledgling publishing house that specialises in the kind of coffeetable books your grandma likes, pages and pages of photographs and postcards of what the world used to be like many years ago; there is also Colin, Lois and Benjamin’s father, an increasingly frail, if increasingly grouchy widower, and Helena, Ian’s haughty mother. What this array of characters grants Coe is the ability to rove freely and widely across the UK of the last decade or so, a disparate range of perspectives with which to run up to the calamity of Brexit: at one extreme, you have Benjamin, so caught up in his detachment to miss much of what is happening, then you have – to varying degrees – Douglas (left leaning but comfortable, concerned by whether he is in fact out of touch with what is going on), Sophie (teaching, in touch, Liberal), Ian (a plainer speaker, reasonable, heroic even, at times, and yet swayed by a blizzard of facts, rumours, gossip and nonsense) – before you finally arrive at Colin and Helena, who are two sides of a similar coin – bitter at the world, nostalgic for a past that may not have existed, somewhat racist, somewhat judgemental, somewhat unkind.
What strikes you as you read Middle England is the fairness on show. Coe isn’t setting out to lampoon people. Here is Sophie, for instance, staring across a divide as she thinks about her father:
“‘I don’t think I heard a word of English,’ Colin had said, and she had realised that the very thing he was complaining about was the very thing she liked most about this city. Tonight she had already overheard French, Italian, German, Polish, Urdu, Bengali and a few others she couldn’t identify. It didn’t bother her that she didn’t understand half of what people were saying; the Babel of voices added to the sense of benign confusion she loved so much…”
He even, somehow, manages to navigate degrees of reasonableness in a way that both reassures and provokes. Here is Benjamin and Philip, parting from a lunch in which a seemingly well-meaning would-be author pitched “a demented farrago” in which the “white races of Europe, apparently, were being subjected to a gradual genocide”:
“‘Shall we meet somewhere else next time?”
‘No, I like it here… It’s always an adventure. You never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s nasty, a lot of the time it’s as weird as hell. But that’s England for you. We’re stuck with it.'”
Philip watches Benjamin drive off and wonders “whether Benjamin was starting to carry this whole equanimity thing a bit too far.”
All of which may make Coe sound like the world’s most anodyne writer but he is just as robust when it comes to actually staring into the abyss. Driving her mother-in-law to the hospital one evening, Sophie is appalled by Helena’s apparently inexplicable racism:
“Sophie froze when she heard these words, and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now. Here it was, after all. The subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t, be discussed. The subject that divided people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes and to tear off the other person’s clothes and to be forced to stare at each other, naked, unprotected, with no way of averting your eyes.”
Middle England is awash with stories – the story of Benjamin’s book, the story of Sophie’s academic career, the story of Doug’s romance with a Conservative MP – that could easily look cartoon-like if glibly passed over but which feel alive within the confines of the book, which feel funny and true and bittersweet. More than anything else, there is a comfort here. Hearing a warm, clever person reflect on the terrible lows and brief highs of the last decade is reassuring, will have you thinking, yes, this is exactly what a novel should be doing in 2018. Like John Lanchester, like Barbara Kingsolver, like Sam Byers, Coe is furiously writing about the world in which we find ourselves, and he writes with wit and with pathos, with sympathy and with frustration.
Any Cop?: We loved every second of Middle England. The conclusion (if this is the conclusion) of Coe’s trilogy does what every good trilogy should: leaves you hankering to re-read all three books back to back.