‘Number 11’, or ‘Tales that Witness Madness’ by Jonathan Coe

Number 11 book coverTwenty-five years on, Jonathan Coe has written a fascinating sequel to his satire of the nineteen-eighties. Number 11 [London: Viking, 2015] in which he now sends up the early years of this century. Coe is a talented novelist with a gift for pointing up the absurdity and selfishness of a certain type of person; in simple terms the haves, at the expense of the have nots. He is also a master of his craft as a novelist.

The novel begins and (almost) ends with Rachel visiting her grandparents’ house in Beverley. The events in between interweave Rachel and her friends and acquaintances as they encounter and usually come off worst against the next generation of the Winshaw family and its hangers-on. It has to be the next generation since Coe killed off all of the previous generation in one gory night back in 1991. However, their spirit lives on.

Coe’s political heart is on the left, further left than some but with a tolerance for those to the right of him. Whereas What a Carve Up! is an out-and-out rollicking satire that provides great and often very funny entertainment, this apparent successor novel, written a quarter of a century later by a more mature author, has greater depth and subtlety. The five different set pieces portray various aspects of austerity Britain and give the lie to the humbug that we are all in this together. To the extent that time travel is not yet possible, Osborne may be right; but that we are all sharing a proportionate amount of the burden was never less true. Having got that off my own chest, and not being able to reveal too much (my one rule of these reviews) I suggest that one ought to re-read What a Carve Up! and then tackle Number 11 which was nearly subtitled What a Whopper!. Both that fairly forgettable film and this new novel end with a big surprise. Coe’s surprise lifts the book even further in my estimation and puts it in contention for the next Man Booker, if it is time for a humorous novel to win again; which doesn’t happen often enough.

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