Middle England: A novel
“Coe is a veteran who knows how to keep the action moving.”
At one point in Middle England, the new novel by the award-winning British author Jonathan Coe, a character says she and her husband are trying “a very specific form” of marriage counseling: “Post-Brexit counseling.”
Could Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union really be grounds for divorce? Maybe. While Middle England offers many subplots and too many narrators over its eight-plus-year span, its underlying—and timely—theme is the way the passions that led to Brexit and its global cousins, nationalism and “other”-bashing, have infected daily life.
At first, there are only a few throwaway sentences. A British dinner-table companion on a cruise complains about how “we don’t look after our own anymore.” The bitter mother-in-law of Sophie Coleman-Potter, one of the main characters, warns that she reluctantly voted for the centrist Tory Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015 because “the [Labour] alternative was unthinkable. But if the time ever comes when we are given the opportunity to let him know what we really think of him, then believe me—we will take it.”
Gradually, Coe raises the stakes. Sophie’s husband, Ian, loses a promotion to a colleague who is a woman of South Asian ancestry. Then Sophie is suspended from her post as a university lecturer in art history and hounded by a Twitter onslaught after she’s accused of being insensitive to a transgender student.
Finally, their opposite views on Brexit rip apart Sophie and Ian’s marriage. “Ian had reacted (to her mind) so bizarrely to the referendum result, with such gleeful, infantile triumphalism,” Sophie muses, “that, for the first time, she genuinely realized that she no longer understood why her husband thought and felt the way he did.”
Brexit even intensifies the rivalry between two clowns who entertain at children’s parties.
Of course, there’s also plenty of non-Brexit action in this novel, which is part humorous, part preachy, part elegiac, and a bit sprawling.
The book centers on three primary narrators: Sophie; her uncle Benjamin, a recently retired real-estate manager who has decided to write a musical-literary opus about his doomed infatuation with his high school sweetheart; and Benjamin’s school chum, Doug, a cynical left-wing journalist with an angry and radicalized teenage daughter.
However, more than a half-dozen other characters also narrate from time to time, sometimes switching the story’s point of view in mid-paragraph or showing up only once.
(Many of the characters appear in two of Coe’s earlier novels, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, but Middle England can certainly be read on its own.)
Running from April 2010 to September 2018, the novel traces Benjamin’s literary career and possible midlife romance, his elderly father’s decline into dementia, the crumbling of his sister Lois’s marriage, the failure of Doug’s marriage, the changing political scene as reflected in Doug’s periodic conversations with a Tory PR flak, the love life of Sophie’s good friend Sohan, the delicate relationship of one of the clowns with his Muslim quasi-stepdaughter, and more.
All this is almost too much, especially because certain subplots are dropped too quickly. Luckily, Coe is a veteran who knows how to keep the action moving.
And while some of the characters, such as Sophie’s mother-in-law Helena and Doug’s daughter, are too starkly villainous, others are interestingly complex, most notably Ian.
The eponymous Middle England is also, in some ways, a character in this book. Whether the population of this stretch of Britain near Birmingham is as solidly pro-Brexit as Helena claims, or as boring as Sohan scoffs, Coe and many of the characters clearly love it.
As Benjamin and Lois look out on a hillside near where they grew up, Benjamin notices how the scene has—and has not –changed:
“True, the three white aluminum-clad towers of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital now dominated the far horizon, as they had not done in 1976, and—more dramatically—there was no Longbridge factory any more, parts of it now replaced by houses, shops and college buildings, other parts simply obliterated, leaving large, ugly scars on the landscape. But otherwise the view was the same, the view towards Waseley Country Park and Frankley Beeches, towards the Clent Hills and Hagley and the Black Country beyond. Its permanence was comforting.”
That may be the novel’s more optimistic message: Nature is permanent, no matter what fences we try to build around and within it.