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This post as been a long time coming and I am so glad to be able to finally review all three of Jonathan Coe’s novels from his accidental trilogy, The Rotters’ Club. When his novel Middle England was published in 2018 it received worldwide literary praise. Despite it popularity many readers didn’t know that it was actually the third and final book in a series by Coe that followed the lives of several high school students to present-day. I was intrigued by Coe’s Middle England but I wanted to read the trilogy together before doing a review, which is why this took a little while to prepare.
I don’t think you need to read all three books, however, I do think that it helps enrich the understanding of the main characters, particularly Benjamin and Doug who I believe are the two main central characters of the series. Furthermore, Middle England does not always give a proper back story to everything that is mentioned in the novel. So if you are curious about how and why certain characters disappear or have the relationships they have with others, then reading the previous two books helps a lot.
Middle England is essentially an attempt to explain the events that led up to Brexit in the U.K., however, the other two novels also aid in explaining how the U.K. got to where it is today. In this regard, the The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle are extremely important as they chronicle the rise and fall of unionism in England as well as the fear that gripped England as factory after factory closed leaving ‘hands-on’ workers without a future. The Closed Circle seems to ask the question, if England is no longer capable of ‘in-house’ production that has been the staple of industrialisation and capitalism, then what does it make? This is subtly answered in Middle England as Coe describes the covert nature of financialisation – a shift from production capital to finance capital. This fear of losing the ‘old ways’ and uncertainty of the financial market has seemed to have left a lot of older U.K. citizens with a fear that gets directed towards foreigners instead of the real culprits – Thatcherism and the rise of finance. The fear of losing the ‘Great British Empire’ upon which the sun never sets, is also played out in the race relations between British people of colour and whites. Although, Coe’s novels also highlight the insidious nature of whiteness, whereby it seems to be a cancer that eats itself in the form of discrimination against other ‘white’ Eastern Europeans in the novels.
Throughout the three novels, it closely follows the life of Benjamin Trotter (Rotter). Benjamin is a man who is caught up in nostalgia, his lost love Cicely, and he doesn’t really do much with his life until he is in his 50s. His life, much like the history and culture of England seem to be intertwined. The love of living in the past does nothing for Ben’s future, and it seems to be the same for England. The final novel, Middle England also foregrounds the story of Sophie, Lois’ daughter (Ben’s sister). It seems to address Sophie’s life in relation to what Brexit will give and take away from the younger generations.
A plot that gets lost after the second book is the anti-Irish nationalists that kill Miriam, the older sister of Claire (one of Benjamin’s school colleagues). This dark and complicated history is dropped by Coe in Middle England. I wonder if this too is a reflection on Britain’s inability to remember its sordid past.
If you have felt flummoxed over Brexit and anti-EU culture in the U.K. Coe’s trilogy offers an interesting perspective. As a word of warning, the last chapter of The Rotters’ Club is terrible and honestly, you could skip it and be totally fine. I hated it because it is a free form stream of consciousness section that has no punctuation. It was, stressful to say the least. As always, share the reading love.