Jonathan Coe: Author Spotlight

Jonathan Coe: One of Britain’s best narrators of contemporary literature

Each country has an author who can narrate its story better than anyone else: for the past 35 years, Jonathan Coe has become one of the most original and remarkable narrators of contemporary-age Britain – if not the best one.

Through his fourteen novels, Coe managed to capture the highs and lows, the contradictions, the customs and the atmosphere of each decade of the UK’s 20th century in unique ways, with the development of unforgettable characters and the use of different literary genres. 

Jonathan Coe was born in Lickey, on the outskirts of Birmingham. And, in 1961 studied at Trinity College in Cambridge and at Warwick University. Throughout his uni years, he cultivated his passion for literature and music, two disciplines that he successfully managed to pursue and mix together at various points of his career. In the late 1980s, Coe moved to London to follow his artistic ambitions: he started writing songs for two bands – The Peer Group and Wanda & The Willy Warmers – as well as publishing his first novel, The Accidental Woman. Then, in 1987 and from this moment on, one successful book after another, he became one of the most interesting voices of English contemporary literature and one of the most acclaimed worldwide.   

Throughout his career, Jonathan Coe has defined a style which can be considered a mixture of mystery, drama, comedy and grotesque (like in The Dwarves of Death or The House of Sleep), but it’s in the genres of political satire and family sagas that he demonstrates the best of his potential. What a Carve Up! unveils the secrets and dishonesty of the Winshaw family, whose members are all conservatives and supporters of the Thatcher government. In the book, Coe attacks sharply the ideologies and the shady manoeuvres of a political class that put a whole country at risk to accumulate benefits and wealth, with characters made to be hated and a clear depiction of the 80s political scene; its sequel Number 11 is set thirty years after and describes what life is like in Britain for the wealthiest 1% (some of them being Winshaw family’s descendants), while the rest of the population faces the catastrophic consequences of austerity post-2008 financial crash. 

Coe’s most acclaimed work is probably the trilogy consisting of The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle and Middle England. In each novel, set in the 70s, 90s and 2010s respectively, we follow the story of the Trotters, a family living in Birmingham, and their extended circle of friends and acquaintances. Through their eyes, Coe masterfully records 40 years of political and societal history, perfectly intertwining the private lives of the characters with external events and the inevitable passage of time. 

In his production, there’s also space for more gentle and introspective moments, like in The Rain Before It Falls – a touching story about passing down family memories -, A Touch of Love – crowded with lonely and lost characters -, or Mr Wilder and Me – a historical novel about director Billy Wilder as told by the memories of a Greek woman. 

Jonathan Coe returned in November 2022 with a brand-new novel Bournville, titled after a suburb in Birmingham once famous for its chocolate factory. The novel gravitates around the lives of the characters: main protagonist Mary witnesses nearly 80 years of social change, from her carefree childhood through the chocolate-scented streets of Bournville to WWII, from post-war optimism to technological advancements and the Covid-19 crisis. 

Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe @ Josefina Melo

Recommended works: 

  • The Rotters’ Club (2001), The Closed Circle (2004), Middle England (2018): this trilogy is a fundamental read for any Jonathan Coe fan, or for whoever wants to get a better understanding of the past 50 years in the UK. The Rotters’ Club is set in the 70s: teenagers Benjamin Trotter, Philip Chase and Doug Anderton attend the same school in Birmingham, they’re obsessed with music and girls and ahead of them there seems to be a bright future. Meanwhile, around them, the world is bursting with trade union strikes, political conflicts, racial tensions and IRA attacks. In The Closed Circle – set twenty years later, during Tony Blair’s new labour government – the protagonists have grown but still have to deal with the demons of the past: some characters are trying to overcome traumas and to find answers to questions that have been left open in the previous book, and some new problems arise; differently from The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle is more mysterious and tense, and the unexpected final plot twist would keep anyone on the edge of their seats. Middle England takes place during the 2010s and follows the series of events and tensions that will result in the Brexit referendum. Benjamin, his sister Lois and his friends are now middle-aged and mildly disillusioned with how their lives have turned out and the state of their country but, even though the political and social climate makes everyone expect the worst, they’ll realise that it’s never too late to make life more bearable; this novel also follows a new storyline focused on Sophie, Lois’ daughter, who embodies the tolerant and reasonable youth that tries to stay afloat through the deliriums and conspiracies of the older generations. 

 

  • What a Carve Up! (1994): undoubtedly Jonathan Coe’s political satire masterpiece. Young writer Michael Owen is commissioned by Tabitha Winshaw to write a biography about her family, receiving a generous remuneration in return; Tabitha has been estranged from her relatives for alleging a betrayal involving the death of one of her brothers, so she has every interest in showing to the public the Winshaws secrets. Michael works slowly on the project but, as he discovers more information, the downward spiral of selfishness, dishonesty and madness swallows every member of the family. 

 

  • The Rain Before It Falls (2007): in this novel Coe showed the most intimate and reflective side of his writing. Gill learns that her aunt Rosamond died: when she visits her house to collect her things, she realises that Rosamond was in the middle of recording a series of tapes for a girl named Imogen, whom Gill saw many years earlier. The only thing she can remember of her is that she was blind; in these tapes, Rosamond meticulously describes photos and anecdotes of her life in order to allow Imogen to understand where she comes from.

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