As Brexit throws Britain into another protracted turmoil, Jonathan Coe once again turns his talents to documenting the state of the nation. Middle England’s authenticity lies in its characters—reintroduced from The Rotters’ Club (2001) and its follow-up, The Closed Circle (2004)—now in late-middle age, with grown children of their own, grappling with a country more divided than ever.
Like the previous works in this series, Middle England covers a lot of ground. It moves swiftly from the election of the coalition government in 2010 to the riots of 2011. The 2012 Olympics gives us a feel-good respite of multicultural pride, but that’s quashed by the 2016 referendum and its subsequent fallout, ending in 2018.
Though each chapter revolves around the storyline of its many characters, if there is a central protagonist it would be Benjamin Trotter, the focal point of Coe’s earlier works. He is now single, living in a Shropshire Mill House and toiling over a novel that has spiraled out of control. His sister, Lois, is in a dysfunctional marriage, and her daughter, Sofia, is a university lecturer who has embarked on an unlikely romance with a driving instructor, who is in thrall of his mother and her far-right views.
There are many other funny and fascinating characters, too: Sophia’s gay Sri Lankan best friend, Sahan; Charlie, a boyhood friend of Benjamin’s who is now scratching out a living as a clown for children’s parties; and Doug, another old friend, now a political journalist with his own faltering marriage and activist daughter.
At times the novel feels like Coe is cramming in as much action from topical events and somehow weaving it into the plot, but it’s really only a minor complaint. Middle England is a hilarious, nuanced and well-observed novel that keeps the pages turning while leaving a smile on readers’ faces.