Thursday, January 07, 2016

'Number 11' by Jonathan Coe

7 January 2016

It must have been around 1996 when we discovered Jonathan Coe's novel 'What a Carve Up' in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Never having heard of the author or the book we were attracted simply by the shiny cover (with its juxtaposition of Yuri Gagarin and Shirley Eaton) and by the price (I think it was just 99p!). We quickly realised what a comic gem we had stumbled upon. Jonathan Coe is now one of my favourite contemporary novelists. His 2001 novel 'The Rotters' Club', its TV adaptation and its sequel 'The Closed Circle' (2004) brought Coe greater public attention. I've enjoyed all his novels and have written here about 'The Rain Before It Falls' (in August 2008), 'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim' (August 2011) and 'Expo 58' (September 2013). But it is his dark satire on the Thatcherite 1980s, published in 1994, that remains my favourite. It was a real thrill, therefore, to discover that Jonathan Coe has now written a sequel (of sorts – perhaps more of a companion piece) to 'What a Carve Up'. 'Number 11' catalogues Cameron's Coalition Government Britain – with its food banks, reality TV, closing libraries and exploitation of migrant workers. The novel (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jessica Hynes and Rory Kinnear) has an episodic structure – a set of short stories that take some time to reveal the links between them. And, though few members of the infamous Winshaw family survived the denouement of the original novel, their ghosts hang heavy over modern Britain as their protégés and disciples seem to hold the reins of power. It's a bleak but very funny tale and Coe is in playful mood. The number 11 appears in a variety of guises (it seems to be the number of every significant house in the story) and there is more than a hint of “turning it up to 11”. We also return to the 1961 British film, 'What a Carve Up' which provided the driving narrative of the original novel – or rather to its successor 'What a Whopper' (more of a companion piece than a sequel). In fact 'Number 11' ends up as a bumper Quality Street tin of themes, motifs and cultural references – and is all the more fun for it. There is a relatively self-contained detective story sandwiched in the middle of the book that is so beautifully constructed and wittily concluded I felt like applauding when it ended. 'Number 11' is inevitably not quite as stunning as its brilliant precursor but its a bravura encore that had me seething with rage at the modern world while simultaneously unable to stop myself beaming with joy.



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