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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Middle England

Jonathan Coe

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To purchase Middle England

Title: Middle England
Author: Jonathan Coe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018
Length: 429 pages
Availability: Middle England - US
Middle England - UK
Middle England - Canada
Le cœur de l'Angleterre - France
Middle England - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging if a bit over-stretched

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 22/11/2018 .
Financial Times . 2/11/2018 Jonathan Derbyshire
The Guardian . 16/11/2018 Sam Leith
Literary Review . 11/2018 Mark Lawson
New Statesman . 31/10/2018 J.Thomas-Corr
The Observer . 25/11/2018 Alex Preston
The Spectator . 3/11/2018 Jon Day
Sunday Times . 28/10/2018 Theo Tait
The Telegraph . 17/1/2019 Vidyan Ravinthiran
The Times . 9/11/2018 Melissa Katsoulis
TLS . 13/11/2018 Alex Clark

  Review Consensus:

  Quite enjoyable; quite successful as Brexit novel

  From the Reviews:
  • "At times Mr Coe delivers hammer-blows instead of his trademark satirical swipes, and soapbox speechifying instead of dialogue. His brilliantly funny set pieces are more subtle and successful; similarly, he is more incisive when tracing gradual decline rather than convulsive change. Although the narrative flits between Birmingham and London, this is no tale of two cities. Middle England is a compelling state-of-the-nation novel, full of light and shade, which vividly charts modern Britainís tragicomic slide." - The Economist

  • "The effect is not entirely satisfactory. It sometimes feels as though Coe has simply tipped the contents of his notebook straight into the novel. These sections of the book suffer from a shortcoming that afflicts any work of fiction that hews so closely to very recent events: they feel like barely sublimated polemic. (...) What is interesting about Coe -- and what is interesting about this novel and the other two in the trilogy -- is not so much his flight from Englishness as his ambivalent embrace of it. " - Jonathan Derbyshire, Financial Times

  • "(A)n enjoyable, absorbing and less than completely successful attempt to find the sweet spot of that sore point. (...) (I)tís never stronger or more convincing than when itís furthest from political events. (...) (I)t is when the political discussion is out of the way that the novel becomes richer and less schematic. (...) Coeís writing is as smoothly accomplished as ever." - Sam Leith, The Guardian

  • "Even though we always broadly know what will happen in Britain during the period described, Coe keeps us eager to learn exactly how it occurs for Benjamin, Sophie, Culpepper and the rest." - Mark Lawson, Literary Review

  • "Its threads of fiction and reality interweave to form an ironic lament for a country trapped in an imperialist fantasy. Itís the tale of what happens when nostalgia turns toxic. (...) Coeís metier is the twerpishness of the comfortably-off, dissatisfied British man, available in all flavours. (...) Middle England is extremely funny -- and itís funny in a way thatís cathartic. If Coe comes across as a Remoaner licking his wounds, he always manages to cover his back, undercutting a rant or a moment of sentimentality with a wink at the reader." - Johanna Thomas-Corr, New Statesman

  • "While we want everything we read at the moment to speak with the voice of our own particular echo chamber, Coe -- a writer of uncommon decency -- reminds us that the way out of this mess is through moderation, through compromise, through that age-old English ability to laugh at ourselves." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "The prose is slick and precise and you always feel in safe hands. Coe is a master of transitions -- using paragraph and section breaks to cut the action -- and his set-pieces are perfect miniatures, stylishly engineered. But reading Middle England can seem like wandering around a model village: you marvel at the extraordinary attention to detail, but feel unsettled by the lack of life." - Jon Day, The Spectator

  • "Middle England takes all that is memorable and moving about his body of work and throws it at the present emergency." - Alex Clark, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Middle England features several characters from Jonathan Coe's earlier novels, The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle and as such, and with its focus on capturing a further specific period of recent British history (the most recent, 2010 to 2018), is a sequel of sorts, but it also stands quite easily on its own. There is a pervasive feeling and fostering of nostalgia throughout, and in the final sections there's even a King William's School 40th class reunion -- bringing several of the characters back to that formative locale -- as well as a new incarnation of 'The Rotters' Club', but the characters feel quite fully realized (or at least are to the extent necessary) even without familiarity with the two previous installments, with Coe filling enough backstory where necessary.
       Even on its own, Middle England is certainly full -- of characters and events -- and fast, zipping across nearly a decade, Coe keeping a great deal moving in this near-contemporary state of the nation (and how it got there ...) novel. It feature a large cast of characters, and shifts between their often quite separate storylines. Coe zooms in on specific events, but also lets time pass, with chapters often weeks and months apart (and in one case jumping a whole year ahead ), whatever happens in the skipped-over meantime -- often matters of considerable significance in the lives of those involved -- then casually filled in; characters are left on their own for months or years at a time, and only eventually caught up with. It's less frustrating than it sounds -- indeed, hardly at all --, with readers rarely feeling they are missing things; there's something of a true-to-life feel to it (which Coe has nicely mastered), of catching up at irregular intervals with what others in one's larger orbit have been up to, rather than being on top of every last thing that happens in their lives, as it happens. (It has the feel of old-time keeping in touch by mail, an occasional catching-up every few weeks or months or years by letter, rather than the Facebook-/Instagram-timeline immediacy of so much modern-day life.)
       The one junction where Coe offers a sweeping situating of most of the major players comes on 27 July 2012, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, held in London. While many of the characters sit in some isolation, in front of their various television sets, it is a rare moment of greater unity, with all of them getting rather caught up in this successful capturing of being English. Even Benjamin Trotter -- the central character in the novel --, who is: "making cuts and revisions to his novel, while listening to a string quartet by Arthur Honegger" when the festivities begin and seems to have missed the boat entirely ("Is that tonight ?" he says, convincingly caught unawares) is sucked into it, and, like all the others, latches onto the common enthusiasm. Typically, too, it's the sense of nostalgia that hits home particularly effectively; for the rest of the novel, however, the real Britain around them is a rather more unsettled place during these years.
       Middle England finds Benjamin in his fifties. He recently moved to a converted mill, near Shrewsbury in western England, and is: "probably best described as retired". He doesn't have any financial concerns -- he did well selling his London property -- and while he has been working on an ambitious novel sequence, Unrest, since his university days -- now extending to some million and a half words -- it's increasingly seeming more albatross than anything else:

Supposedly combining a vast narrative of European history since Britain's accession to the Common Market in 1973 with a scrupulous account of his own interior life during that period, it was further complicated by the fact that it also had a musical "soundtrack," composed by Benjamin himself, whose precise relationship to the text he had never quite been able to decide. Shapeless, sprawling, prolix, over-ambitious, misconceived, unpublishable, in parts unreadable and by and large unlistenable, the whole thing had started to lower over Benjamin like an oppressive cloud. He couldn't bring himself to abandon it, but he had lost all sense of whether it possessed the slightest merit.
       Middle England opens after the funeral of Benjamin's mother, and widower Colin, his aging dad, is the one concern that he faces over the following years, as he tries to be supportive in the old man's slow decline -- helped some by sister Lois, who still has an old trauma to work through. As Lois' marriage putters awkwardly on, her daughter Sophie, just finishing her studies and beginning an academic career, soon settles into a marriage of her own, with the unlikely Ian, ten years her senior, and whose interests are very different from hers -- and who remains very close to his own mother, Helena, who isn't too pleased about the changes around her in the backwater she lives in.
       Current events figure prominently in the novel, as Coe leads his characters through some of the major ones of that period -- notably the government-shifting elections, beginning with the one shortly after the funeral, which saw the Labour government, under Gordon Brown, fall to what became the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition under David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Politics come up frequently then -- notably with Benjamin's schoolmate, columnist Doug Anderton, and his regular meet-ups with government spokesman Nigel -- and the divide between EU- and foreigner-phobic conservatives and those with a more open and European outlook grows inexorably larger, especially as things move towards the fatal Brexit vote. The 2011 riots in Birmingham feature, while the economic shifts are visible throughout the countryside -- with one aspect nicely summed up when Colin asks Benjamin to take him to see what's become of the British Leyland car plant at Longbridge where he used to work -- and of which there is now barely a trace. Colin is shocked by what's happened to British manufacturing might, and observes:
     "I'm not saying ... I mean, I know we made crap cars. I know the Germans and Japanese make better cars than we ever did. I'm not daft. I understand all that. I understand why people want to buy a car from Japan that's not going to break down after a couple of years like ours used to. What I don't understand is ...
     "What I don't understand is, where's it going to end ? How we can keep going like this. We don't make anything any more. If we don't make anything then we've got nothing to sell, so how ... haw are we going to survive ?
       Political correctness rears its head in often discomfiting ways, as tensions over changes in culture manifest themselves in a variety of ways and impact and influence the characters. Coe falls back onto some easy black and white contrasts that can feel a bit too glaringly obvious, but generally there's at least a bit of nuance, with Ian surprising as both conservative and decent.
       The English center can not hold, and while Coe of course addresses the catastrophe that is the outcome of the Brexit vote he doesn't harp on it but lets it go with the larger flow of the novel; it isn't any sort of overly-dramatic centerpoint to the action, Coe recognizing that understatement is effective here in addressing what still reverberates so resoundingly and deeply. Tellingly, however, his conclusion has many of his characters having physically fled any English middle ground -- some to the "frozen North", some to the actual continent (and the one secondary character just beginning her studies heading off to Spain).
       Along the way, Coe presents neat little scenes-from-their-lives, the ups and downs especially of domestic life, but nicely reflected here in the greater turmoil bubbling constantly in the background. Benjamin cuts down his writing-project to size and makes a manageable-sized novel of it, and though it was rejected by: "Every publisher in London, and every independent literary house in the rest of the country", school friend Philip Chase publishes it and, after a rather slow start, it receives some surprising attention. Sophie struggles with her academic career, Doug and Lois are among those whose long-falling-apart marriages finally crumble. There are amusing side-figures, including successful novelist Lionel Hampshire and Benjamin's childhood friend Charlie Chappell, who did not continue to the 'right' school and works as a clown (and is in an ongoing fight with a colleague), and enjoyable episodes involving them.
       It does make for a novel that can feel sometimes stretched thin. With such a large tableau, characters can seem neglected; certainly, there are some stories one would like to hear more of. There's also all the current events: Coe walks his reader through these quite well, but it's a hard balance to strike, especially when so much is still so close and familiar -- yet obviously will read quite differently when it has faded from memory after the next few elections, or Britain's post-Brexit apocalypse. Some of the characters and set-ups also feel far too conveniently, or simplistically, black and white, and while Coe does strive for balance, trying to show what might lead some to go down the road leading to Brexit, it's still fairly obvious that he's quite baffled by this national turn.
       Middle England, and the two earlier related novels, can be seen as a lighter and more approachable version of Benjamin's own novel-sequence, Unrest, a roman fleuve rolling across and trying to capture time and country. Benjamin's own tightly pared-back version of his monumental undertaking, A Rose Without a Thorn -- and its surprising literary-establishment success -- even seem like a self-referential wink, Coe reminding himself of his own novel's tending towards drift and meander -- though he's practiced and sure enough to exert and maintain sufficient control, and if sometimes too neat and in other respects slightly ragged Middle England is still a polished and consistently enjoyable ride.
       Coe manages the neat trick of capturing the national unrest and yet conveying it in remarkably settled stories; if anything seems slight surreal about Middle England, it's the general levelheaded sense of satisfaction the characters achieve and feel. Even on the periphery -- a character who spends some time in prison and is pretty down and out -- almost everyone seems to be able to make the best of things (if also with some head-shaking bafflement about what is happening around them).
       Middle England is an enjoyable read that generally captures the state of the nation well -- even as Coe seems slightly unsure of how much to force the issue, as it wavers in just how much of a Brextit-defined novel it wants to be. But in any case, it's certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 May 2019

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Middle England: Reviews: Jonathan Coe: Other books by Jonathan Coe under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities. He is the author of several novels.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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