Jonathan Coe’s latest volume Middle England has been widely described as the best “state of the nation” novel of the last decade, and deservedly so. Whilst Ali Smith’s Autumn was an impressionistic take on the immediate aftermath of the referendum – the first post-Brexit novel – Coe’s book manages to balance the coverage of political events in the run up to June 2016 with an intimate look at how it all unfolds in the lives of characters last seen in Coe’s two Rotters’ Club novels, as well as introducing many new ones.
The story starts in 2010, taking in Gordon Brown’s encounter with “some kind of bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy, through the formation of the coalition government, the London riots, the Olympics opening ceremony, the electoral implosion of the Lib Dems, the murder of Jo Cox, and the referendum itself, finally ending in the present year. The story moves between Birmingham and London and focuses on unpublished novelist Benjamin (Coe’s hero and perhaps authorial insertion), his best friend and journalist Doug and his daughter Coriander “Corrie”, and Benjamin’s own family: his bitter widowed father Colin, and his sister Lois, and her lecturer daughter, Sophie, husband Ian, and best friend Sohan.
The strained relationships between the characters, between Doug and Coriander, Benjamin and Colin, and odd couple Ian and Sophie, convey their contrasting values. Doug supports Ed Miliband and is a centre-left political commentator. But to Corrie, a Corbyn-supporting student radical, Doug’s wealth, Chelsea house and Guardian sensibilities make him a centrist dad and an embarrassment. Fair-minded Benjamin struggles to support his father’s increasing need for care and consolation whilst Colin expresses ever more rightward political opinions.
During a couple’s counselling session, in which Ian and Sophie complain about each other’s attitudes on the referendum, seeing each other as naïve and close-minded respectively, their therapist notes: “What’s interesting about both of these answers is that neither of you mentioned politics. As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all. Maybe something much more fundamental and personal was going on.”
Whilst the politics of austerity, populism and of course Europe are explored, it is this sense of the referendum also being a matter of personal identity that is the book’s most interesting aspect. Whilst Colin is aggrieved by the loss of Birmingham’s former industrial might, Benjamin also observes that his father’s cynicism is rooted in a more diffuse indignation at modern society.
“What [his father] had said to Benjamin about speed cameras today – ‘The buggers are out to get money from you every step of the way’ – was typical. Colin could probably not have specified who ‘they’ were, but he sensed their arrogant, manipulative presence, and resented it keenly.”
This is a theme which Sohan also discusses with Sophie: hidden resentment against political change and against official disapproval of racism and sexism.
“Every day you come face to face with people who are not tolerant at all, whether it’s someone serving you in a shop, or just someone you pass in the street. They may not say anything aggressive but you can see it in their eyes and their whole way of behaving towards you. And they want to say something. Oh yes, they want to use one of those forbidden words on you, or just tell you to fuck off back to your own country – wherever they think that is – but they know they can’t. They know it’s not allowed.
“So as well as hating you, they also hate them – whoever they are – these faceless people who are sitting in judgement over them somewhere, legislating on what they can and can’t say out loud”.
These weighty political and social themes are counterbalanced by the book’s humour. There are many entertaining set-pieces, over awkward dinner conversations, at funerals, onboard a cruise ship, during fumbling sex, and even a clown fight at a children’s party. But the sharpest wit is displayed in the conversations between Doug and government communications adviser Nigel, whose deliberate obfuscations are very reminiscent of Sir Humphrey from ‘Yes Minister’, and serve as a demonstration of the out-of-touch attitudes of the political class, which entirely fails to see the trajectory leading to Brexit.
The only shortcoming of the book is in an attempt to look at trolling and online denunciations. Centred on Sophie’s misinterpreted comments to a trans student, and her subsequent trial by internet, this theme is in places caricatured and lacks the consideration that is threaded throughout the other plotlines. Yet the book manages to combine comedy, compassion, and civic and social themes into one of the best novels released this year.