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Coe's 11th novel is a sort of follow-up to his anti-Thatcherite 1994 'What a Carve Up!' but you don't need to have read it to enjoy this one, as it also stands alone. This is our society right now, illustrated by interlocking narratives crammed with characters representing various aspects of our broken Britain. It's like a box bursting with pop-up stories ready to smack you like a leering jack-in-the-box. By turns it's as savage as Swift, poignant, laugh out loud funny and the characters who jump out may incite our heartfelt sympathy, outrage or loathing. Above all it's wonderfully entertaining, although the conclusion flies into the realm of horror film. Degenerating into the realm of fantasy rather undermines the impressive force of the reality built up all the way through. But I can see it's Coe's last laugh.
Every unpopular aspect of Austerity Britain is slaughtered here - whether it's George Osborne's hypocritical whopper about the Cuts, 'We're all in it together' when the mega-rich untouched by everyday grind fly out to one of their multiple-million homes on the other side of the world, whilst a librarian on severely reduced hours spends the afternoon riding round Birmingham on the bus to keep warm; or whether it's a grandfather's life not considered cost-effective to prolong with the expensive drugs which the mega-rich tax-avoiders can afford to buy for themselves. I like the swipe at our plethora of lavish Prizes - the Prize for the best Prize and I would have laughed if it weren't so likely to be true at the Eastern European woman who decided paying taxes was taking up too much of her earnings, so became a dog-walker in Chelsea with 10 unloved trophy dogs at a time @ £20 cash an hour from her unseen employers locked behind security gates. Those houses in Chelsea either stand empty silently appreciating for their overseas owners, or have become mines (with the occasional unheeded fatal casualty amongst the workforce) as the owners order the mineshafts to make basements for swimming pools (with a high diving board and palm trees) and storage for rarely driven Lamborghinis.
The opening scenario of young Rachel (who grows up through the novel) with her older brother in a spookily locked church is brilliant and hooks the listener absolutely. Another outstanding section is poor one-hit-wonder-in-the-Sixties Val who is lured to take part in I'm a Celebrity Get me out of Here and suffers cruelly as a consequence. Old, plain and unknown, she's made the hate-figure of the show, her conversations are 'shopped' to make her out a nasty villain, the appallingly mindless Ant and Dec characters revel in torturing her with insects and spiders, and her life is destroyed by outrageously vile Trolls.
The two narrators keep up the fast pace of all this and provide a considerable variety of accents and shades of voice for the multitude of characters. Get Listening - it's teeming with life and Coe's intricately meshed narratives and his play on the Number 11 are ingenious! Highly recommended.
25 of 25 people found this review helpful
This is my first Jonathan Coe book so hopefully I can be forgiven for expecting this to be a political 'Yes Minister' type satire. On commencing the story I thought there must be some mistake. I didn’t expect a gothic story of two children being frightened by a crazy bird woman and I thought there might have been some sort of digital mix up. I did however stick with it and on the whole I was rewarded with a mesmerising story of modern Britain and the austerity measures we are all supposed to be living under. The ill treatment of the poor is a given and the injustices were effective rallying calls. But what is very clever is the way in which the lucky ones, the very rich, are portrayed as being trapped in almost hellish meandering lives, roaming the world visiting their increasingly vulgar properties, siring children they despise and devising schemes to hold onto the money they neither need or can spend on anything worthwhile. The limitations of extreme wealth are hilariously portrayed. It may enable you to excavate the pointless 11th level of your depressing and claustrophobic basement extension but it cannot entice the lions to come out to play when you safari in Africa.
In a way this is basically a story about revenge and the bizarre way in which it is enacted didn’t really work for me. I did however relish the journey of the three main characters, Rachel, Alison and Val, and regrettably I know that there really are people like Freddy out there.
The narration from Jessica Hynes was outstanding and a real credit to the material. I note from reading reviews that Jonathan Coe fans do not see this as his best work. I thought it was very good /excellent and this will certainly lead me into reading more books from him.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful