For those who found The Rotters’ Club riveting, here is the sequel. Jonathan Coe takes his characters 25 years on from their schooldays in Birmingham to work, relationships, love and politics – again mostly in Birmingham with the odd walk-on part for Italy, Denmark and London. Whereas the background to The Rotters’ Club was the Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA, strikes and the rise of fascism, now the first years of the 21st century as depicted in The Closed Circle bring us the closures at Rover, 9/11, the Paddington train crash, the new threat of fascism and of course war in Iraq.
Coe weaves politics in and out of his characters’ lives. In fact the novel’s subtitle could be ‘mid-life crisis in the time of the new imperialism’. The only professional politician in it is Paul Trotter, obnoxious younger brother in the first novel, now transformed into obnoxious New Labour MP. But everyone’s lives are affected and sometimes afflicted by what goes on around them. The hero of the first novel, Benjamin Trotter, longs for his first love. He is trapped inside an unhappy marriage and continues to attempt his life work of writing and music which becomes more and more ambitious as it remains uncompleted. His day job of accounting exposes the gap between his dreams and the reality.
Ben’s sister Lois is psychologically scarred by the Birmingham bombings, which she witnessed and in which her boyfriend died. Claire Newman, who has hankered after Ben since schooldays, is tormented to know what happened to her sister Miriam who disappeared just after the bombings.
Personal life has tended to disappoint compared with the hopes of the 1970s. Ben has failed to fulfil his early literary promise. Philip Chase has a book on fascism inside him but finds it hard to break out of his newspaper column on Birmingham. Even Doug Anderton – star journalist and married to a wealthy aristocrat – sees his job as literary editor on a national newspaper as a demotion from politics.
But perhaps more than the disappointments that are for most people a feature of becoming older is the sense of political foreboding that runs through the book. People are scared about losing their jobs, about racism and fascism, about the war in Iraq, about corporate downsizing. The Closed Circle is itself a shadowy right wing group which sees in Paul Trotter the ideal New Labour vehicle for promoting its interests.
The past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Claire, who in many ways is the most attractive character in The Closed Circle, talks about ‘how you could go mad trying to trace the thing back to its source, trying to point the finger of blame at someone, you know, going right back to the beginnings of the Irish problem until you end up saying something like, is Oliver Cromwell to blame for the fact that Lois had to spend so many years in hospital?’
There is much about The Closed Circle to enjoy. Coe is a good writer and he keeps you engrossed with his characters. But the book is less good than its predecessor in two ways. Its plot is more contrived and seems to be a little bit rushed towards the end. Plus there is a political gap. The characters are nearly all people with hearts in the right place: they demonstrate for Longbridge; they oppose the war; they hate racism and fascism. But the exceptions – the businessmen, MPs, fascists – tend to be the ones with the greater commitment to their ideals.
That leaves everyone else seeing the world as frightening and threatening – and the search for true love as the key to fulfilment. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Coe is too intelligent and political a writer to leave it at that. His final words, as two of the children of school friends are on the brink of a relationship together, show how the decisions by politicians and capitalists have a huge effect on personal relationships: ‘The two of them wanted nothing more from life, at that moment, than the chance to repeat the mistakes their parents had made, in a world which was still trying to decide whether to allow them even that luxury.’
Despite my reservations, read this book. It has plenty to recommend. And Coe is one of the increasing number of novelists and writers who are determined to weave war and fascism into their narrative alongside road rage, mobile phones and the distance between the generations in the 21st century. In doing so, he tells us a lot about what we have done in the past quarter century and what we have become.
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