- - Wednesday, August 28, 2019


On June 24, 2016, 48 percent of the voters in Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union (EU) were gobsmacked when they woke to discover that the other 52 percent had outvoted them.

Now, more than three years later, with Brexit still unachieved, those in favor of remaining are not only gobsmacked with the vote but with the multitude of variations on the Brexit theme, which have led to virtual stalemate in Parliament.  

Political and social pundits have, of course, come up with explanations about how the leavers trumped the remainers, and, more importantly, why they feel that Britain leaving the EU is a step forward, while the remainers think it a step backwards. Answers have been many. Surely, then, there is room for a social novelist to tells us what has been going on in British hearts and minds.

This is the task Jonathan Coe turns to in “Middle England.” Its setting is mostly Birmingham, the huge commercial and industrial city in the middle of the country. The novel centers on Benjamin Trotter and various family members and old school friends.

Almost all are middle class. Among them is Doug Anderton, who is a political columnist, and therefore has access to Prime Minister David Cameron’s PR flunky. Doug’s scenes with him are the sharpest satire in the novel, digging into the moral as well as the political failings that inspired the referendum. Later, when a snobbish and thoroughly obnoxious woman refuses to support an emigrant friend and suggests she return to where she came from, it’s easy to see a major fault line in the social contract.

Other characters also align with problems that inspired the leavers. Benjamin’s father, Colin, feels sidelined by age and bereavement, but also by the closing of the vast car factory where he had spent his working life. Ian, who marries Benjamin’s niece, Sophie, loses a promotion to an Anglo-Asian colleague. Apparently, he takes it in good part, but his income is affected and he votes to leave — though likely he would have done so anyway.

Sophie is incredulous when Ian tells her that the leave voters are going to win. Like most others, she just doesn’t see it coming, and though she lives through its consequences she never really explores why it happened.

Indeed, while “Middle England” fields numerous characters who dramatize one of the likely impulses of the leave vote, the dots between their issues are never really connected because much of the limelight of the novel falls on the story of Sophie as she gets a job as a college teacher, marries Ian and works through the personal and work problems that come her way. 

This is true also of Benjamin. In his 50s he is re-meeting and often helping old friends, while also thinking through options for the rest of his life. He is a pleasant, intelligent figure to spend time with, but he is an observer and never moves beyond his own remain sympathies.

As a political columnist Doug Anderton digs deeper, trying to break past the idea of a collective madness. “He knew that the outrage … was being stoked because it was valuable to someone: not to any one individual, of course, or even to one clearly identifiable movement or political party but to a disparate, amorphous coalition of vested interests who were being careful not to declare themselves too openly.”

Doug goes on to read a position paper from one Ronald Culpepper that bears this conjecture out. Elsewhere in “Middle England,” several characters read from diaries, emails or other documents that are quoted at length. These form part of a patchwork — of texts, of characters, of issues, of locations — that hook readers’ interest. But like a patchwork quilt, the parts that form the whole grab more attention than the finished work, which is after all, no more than a workaday object made from bright bits and pieces.   

One reason for the bits and pieces in this novel is that author Jonathan Coe has re-used characters from his earlier novels, especially “The Rotters’ Club” and “The Closed Circle.” References to Benjamin’s earlier love of Cicely and his sister Lois’ sufferings from psychological trauma often occur. One may at first assume that as the novel progresses the back stories will be filled in. That doesn’t happen, and it makes both Benjamin and Lois much less interesting than they could have been.

The slack is taken up by the many other stories — of emigrant Grete and her husband, of Doug’s intransigent daughter, Coriander, of Charlie the party clown, of Ian’s horrible mother, Helena. All these tales — some heart-wrenching, some heart-warming — make “Middle England” readable. But the Brexit vote may remain as mysterious as ever.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Jonathan Coe 

Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 448 pages

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