A friend in France recommended this book as giving some kind of an insight into the inner workings of contemporary British society, with all its quirks and foibles, and particularly into the mindset of that segment of the population that voted to leave the European Union.
Jonathan Coe has set his novel in the Midlands, the area in the geographical middle of England. The people whose actions he describes are mostly middle class and middle aged (though there are one or two younger and older individuals), and I suppose it could be considered to portray a representative cross-section of the contemporary British population. The Britain in which I grew up some sixty-odd years ago was far more homogenous and insular than the Britain of today, and it would seem that that is what some of its population is yearning for.
Although the name of Enich Powell, the Conservative Minister for Health in Edward Heath’s government in the late 1960s is not mentioned specifically, his anti-immigration stance and warning of ‘rivers of blood’ does come up in the conversation of one of the main character’s elderly relatives, and it is this attitude that overshadows much of the events described in the book and turns out to be part of the explanation for what is happening in Britain today.
Benjamin Trotter, the principal character, unpublished writer and ineffective husband/lover, is preoccupied with helping his recently-widowed father to overcome his grief and isolation while at the same time trying to provide moral support for his sister Lois, who is virtually separated from her husband. Lois’s daughter Sophie constitutes another central character of the book, and her initial encounter with and subsequent relations with her husband Ian form another strand of the narrative. In addition to the members of the family which constitutes the core of the book there are several subordinate characters, though these sometimes serve as an unwelcome and even confusing distraction from the main storyline.
But what is the main storyline if not the variegated tapestry that makes up modern Britain? Some of the characters are British-born, white and rooted in their native land while others stem from other countries, as is the case with the Caribbean immigrants who came to live in England from the Commonwealth, in what is popularly known as the ‘Windrush’ generation, after the name of the first ship that brought those immigrants to Britain’s shores. The descendants of the original immigrants feel as British as anyone else even though the colour of their skin betrays their origin elsewhere, and it is they who are competing with the original inhabitants of the island for places at university and promotion at work. To quote Enoch Powell, there is ‘a;sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected.’That feeling has been intensified as people from the countries that comprise the European Union have settled in England in increasing numbers.
As the events described in the book unfold, revealing the deep rift within British society between the haves and the have-nots, the struggle experienced by many to stay afloat economically, the tone of the daily press and the ideological disenchantment of the younger generation, the reader is exposed to the various currents that are constantly eddying about in contemporary British society.
Finally, in an attempt to escape the growing sense of alienation from the general tenor of British society, Benjamin Trotter and several of his relatives and friends decide to move to France and make a new life for themselves there. If that is the only solution to the current situation it can only be described as a very British mess.
All in all, akthough it’s an entertaining read, the book is a depressing comment on modern Britain as it moves inexorably towards a no-deal Brexit, with all the harmful economic repercussions that will ensue.