Brexit is at the centre, both literally and metaphorically, of Jonathan Coe’s latest novel. The title hints at the territory it covers: geographical, since much of the action takes place in the English midlands; social, since many, but by no means all, of the characters are comfortably-off middle class; and psychological, since the sympathetic characters at least show some sense of being balanced and reasonable.
Coe goes back to the cast of characters first introduced in The Rotters’ Club, especially Benjamin Trotter, now living as a semi-recluse in a converted mill in Shropshire, and still working on the roman fleuve that he hopes to publish some day. We see him first after the funeral of his mother, listening to Shirley Collins’s evocative rendition of the old folk song “Adieu to old England.” Sophie, his niece, now an art historian, has a major presence in this novel, as does his friend Doug, now a hard-bitten member of the political commentariat.
The novel is structured around significant recent events in British life, beginning with the 2010 election, and taking in the 2011 riots, the London Olympics of 2012, the 2015 election, the killing of Jo Cox in the 2016 referendum campaign, and the rise of Trump and populism. There’s a specificity about it, not just in terms of the history, with particular dates and events in mind, but geographically, with the topography of the midlands frequently featuring. This is the England of garden centres and golf courses, but also of abandoned factories and foodbanks, homogenised high streets and hypermarkets.
The calamity of the referendum result lies at the novel’s heart, its implications rippling out to affect the lives of all the characters, usually for the worse, but sometimes, surprisingly, for the better. The novel, more so than the previous two in the series, seeks to anatomise England (not Britain) and finds a melancholy spiritual waste land at its core.
This is not to say that the narrative does not have its lighter moments. Coe shows once again what a master he is of the comic set piece scene, especially in the spats between two minor characters who are children’s entertainers. He is especially acerbic when presenting the vacuous doublespeak of Nigel, a spin-doctor working for David Cameron. He is also capable of managing a large ensemble of characters, skilfully intertwining their stories, and producing a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, in which each participant – Benjamin’s bitter widowed father, Sophie’s blokey husband, his mother’s eastern European cleaner, Doug’s liberal Tory MP girlfriend amongst others – contributes to the overall portrait of a country in terminal decline, at war with itself.
This is truly a “condition of England” novel, which, despite the lightness of its touch, plumbs profound and disturbing depths. It should be required reading for every MP, and everyone who cares for this country.