Middle England Jonathan Coe (2018)
The Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom fascinates me. I’ve been following all the convoluted negotiations by reading the Guardian news online, and I’ve learned more about arcane parliamentary practices than I ever thought possible. So when I noticed that a recent novel by Jonathan Coe was billed as a satire on Brexit, I immediately reserved it at my local public library.
Fear not, however, if you have little interest in Britain’s attempts to leave the European Union. Since Coe is an accomplished writer, Middle England is a perfectly fine family drama, set against the background of contemporary British cultural and political events. (The extended Trotter family and their friends have been the subject of two previous novels by Coe, but it isn’t necessary that you read those novels to follow the family dynamics.) The 50-something siblings Benjamin and Lois Trotter are depressive types even in the best of times, and Coe’s exploration of their relationships is compassionate.
Starting in 2010, Coe traces eight years in the lives of Britons of all political stripes, from bigoted, anti-immigration Brexiteers to self-righteous left-wing crusaders. He skewers them all, even as he demonstrates how the Brexit issue has divided people and damaged relationships. Friendships are shattered, and one married couple in the novel actually separate because of their political differences. Yet other characters refuse to allow Brexit to enter their bedrooms. Some scenes in Middle England are played straight, and others are piercingly satirical. The chapters that feature a left-wing newspaper writer interviewing an obfuscating communications staffer from the office of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had me laughing out loud.
In current British political writing, “Middle England” is somewhat analogous to “Middle America,” referring to middle-class and lower-middle class citizens who do not live in urban centers—in this case, London. Some find that “Middle England” also refers to a geographic region in the Midlands region of England. For me, the title of Coe’s work has additional resonances:
JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth (mentioned several times in the novel)
Political moderation (as distinct from rabid right-wing or left wing stances)
Middle English from the Middle Ages (evoking the glorious literary heritage of Britain, hence nostalgic nationalism, hence isolationism, hence Brexit)
Jonathan Coe writes in a British tradition of razor sharp observers of the contemporary human condition. If you like his approach, you might also like the work of Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble or Joanna Trollope. Or use the new Search Box at the top of this page to find all the British novels I’ve reviewed.