I do love the Costa Prize. It regularly throws up a new-to-me author or a book that I come to adore. The Costa folk have a happy knack of selecting engaging stories, quirky ideas and immensely readable books. There was a lot to love about the 2019 Fiction winner, Middle England.
Set in Brexit England, with a cast of characters that made previous appearances in Coe’s two earlier books, The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004). Although I hadn’t read the first two books, I was able to jump straight into Middle England thanks to the in context flashbacks and remembrances of the main characters. These main characters were obviously much loved by Coe. They were written with such affection, that it was hard not to like them as well.
I would suggest that Coe’s political view of the world basically coincides with my own, so even though I learnt a lot about the Brexit process and gained some insight into how it happened, my views were not challenged. The Remain characters were drawn sympathetically, but were also portrayed as being racist, sexist and/or homophobic. The genuine fear (of change, of the ‘other’, of difference) that many Remain voters feel, was never really brought forward and the many issues with the EU body politic were only briefly touched on. Perhaps the least sympathetic character, was young Coriander (she was always going to be difficult with a name like that!), the extreme left-wing militant who took offence at pretty much everything.
This all might sound a bit heavy and boring, but let me assure you, it was far, far from that. I had some genuine laugh out loud moments and was entertained from start to finish.
I particularly enjoyed the other serendipitous book moments that happened along the way.
Our English Lit character had a conference in Marseille, that turned into a mini-Count of Monte Cristo homage, culminating in a visit to the Château d’If where Edmund was wrongly imprisoned in his story. I was very envious.
Half way through, most of our characters sat down to watch the Opening ceremony of 2012 London Olympics, which I had just read up on thanks to my recent read of The Tempest. I loved seeing it through the eyes of so many different people.
Middle England is infused with a very British nostalgia, a huge heart and a sense of increasing bewilderment. The politics of Brexit is made personal as this group of family and friends discuss, fall out and learn to live with each other’s different view points and opinions.
I will definitely go back to read The Rotters’ Club at some point; I’m curious to know how Benjamin and his family and friends started out.
- Ian Sansom suggested these books were “the closest thing we have to a contemporary middle-class, middle-England Dance to the Music of Time”.
- John Boyne said: “Millions of words have been and will be written on Brexit but few will get to the heart of why it is happening as incisively as Middle England.”
- Costa Book Awards Fiction Winner 2019
- 2019 nominee for The Prix Femina étranger