Amongst all the Women in Translation and my country-themed reading months, I also manage to squeeze in a few books that I see on the shelves at the library. I usually stay clear of ‘buzzy’ books, because they are so likely to disappoint me if I get my hopes up too high. But every now and then I succumb to temptation.
Jonathan Coe: Middle England
Imagine a soap opera populated predominantly by middle-class characters, set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in England in the period 2010-2018. That is what the author sets out to describe in this novel populated by a fairly large cast of characters, all related by blood or by the fact that they went to a grammar school in Birmingham together. The characters are sometimes in conflict: parents and children do not understand each other, couples drift apart, unsavoury political opinions come out in discussions. Some are Labour voters, some are Conservatives, even though their lifestyles might not match their beliefs. Some are Leavers, some Remainers, and xenophobia rears its ugly head from time to time. And some are rivals who take themselves far too seriously, like the ever-escalating conflict of the children’s entertainers.
I haven’t read the earlier books that feature the same characters, but it’s easy enough to warm up to the somewhat hapless Benjamin Trotter, looking after his increasingly cranky widowed father while dreaming of becoming something more than ‘the best unpublished writer in the country’. His niece Sophie and the Lithuanian cleaner Grete are also sympathetically drawn, but you can’t help feeling that all of the nice characters share the political views of the author. By contrast, Sophie’s mother-in-law Helena is absolutely awful. This is what she tells a Chinese visitor about the fox-hunting ban in Britain:
“Mr Hu, I have never visited China and I have no wish to make light of the difficult conditions in which you must live there. But here in Great Britain, we face similar problems. In fact I would alsmot say that our situation is worse. You have overt censorship; ours is covert. It all happens under a mask of freedom of speech… But we do not have freedom, of speech or of anything else. The people who once kept a great British tradition alive by riding to hounds are not free to do so any more. And if any of us try to compalin about it, we are shouted down…”
Although there are funny moments, it did feel at times as though I was reading a summary of Twitter rants, Facebook posts or newspaper features collected over the course of the last few years. It paints a panorama of social life, rather than trying to probe too far in the depths. I don’t know if it is possible to debate these issues without losing fictional tension and veering towards the realm of polemical essay. However, this possible explanation for angry trolls made me laugh:
‘People like to get angry about anything. A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse… I think for a lot of people… there’s nothing much going on in their lives. Emotionally, I mean, maybe their marriages have dried up or everything they do has become a kind of habit, I don’t know. But they don’t feel much. No emotional stimulation. We all need to feel things, don’t we? So, when something makes you angry, at least you’re feeling something. You get that emotional kick.’
This is literature for the polite and puzzled classes, who try to recycle, be civil to others and yet fall into the trap of nostalgia on occasion themselves. (All the characters watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games and getting teary-eyed about it, for instance.) Coe’s a marvellous observer of foibles (and speech) and he probably was wise to stick to the milieu he knows best. This is not quite as bitter and satirical as the recent TV series Years and Years, but it’s probably a good snapshot of a certain class in a certain period in recent social history.
Lissa Evans: Old Baggage
This one was an utter delight, and in some ways it felt closer to our times and more revolutionary than Middle England. Yet most of the story takes place in 1928, when Mattie Simpkin, former Sufragette, is feeling a little… middle-aged and useless. She is searching for a new cause into which she can pour her considerable energies, and believes she has found it in a girls’ club that is more about equal rights and learning to fight rather than Girl Guide badges. But her own nostalgia for the past leads her down the wrong path, despite what her faithful companion, The Flea, tries to tell her.
Mattie is a larger than life character, a bit of a steamroller and simultaneously imagining all sorts of slights from the people around her whilst also oblivious to any of their anxieties or suffering. Yet the author manages to make the reader care about her and understand where she is coming from. High comedy coexists amiably with quite gruesome political history (which takes place mostly off-stage, in the past), but there are many parallels to today’s world. Despite what the Sufragettes believed, society did not progress as much as they had hoped at the time, which gives the book an added poignancy.
Unlike in Middle England, where it does feel at times like an info dump, the political background and research is used sparingly in Old Baggage. Erudition with a light touch. Several fellow bloggers had recommended this one as a high-energy, ‘cheery’ book to take my mind off things – and it certainly did the trick.