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Saturday, January 29th, 2005


 

The Rotters' Club (Vintage Contemporaries)

by Jonathan Coe

A review by Georgie Lewis

Jonathan Coe has an uncanny ability to get under the skin of a multitude of characters while at the same time astutely map the political and social landscape of a specific period. His mesmerizing and hilarious Winshaw Legacy was set in London during the 1980's. With devastating acuity he dissected the times, bringing to life some of the people that bore witness to Margaret Thatcher's reign. His follow up, and most recent novel to be published in the United States, is the Rotter's Club which is set in Birmingham in the 1970's, foreshadows the climate that allowed Thatcher's philosophies to incubate.

It is probably clichéd to use the term Dickensian, and yet like a wonderful dense epic that encompasses generations, The Rotter's Club features characters whose friendships and families are inextricably entwined through school and work at the local car manufacturer. Doug Atherton's father Bill is the shop steward at the plant, while Benjamin's father Colin is in management. Benjamin is school friends with Doug. Bill has an affair with a secretary at his plant, Claire's sister, yet another friend of Benjamin's. Claire has a crush on Benjamin, Doug has a crush on Claire… Whew - that is just the beginning of the labyrinth of relationships here. Politics forms the backdrop to the story, affecting all of the characters in one way or another. From class warfare to IRA bombings to racism, all infused with the ambivalent economic climate looming over Birmingham, Coe creates a wonderful pastiche of time and place.

While Coe's political satire is sharp, what elevates his literature is his heart. And if that sounds cheesy, perhaps it is because I've been spending time with Benjamin Trotter (nicknamed Bent Rotter by his school friends at the semi-posh public school King Williams) whose sentiments frequently lie on the riper side of cheesy. Benjamin is one of the four boys whose teenage years in Birmingham are chronicled here, and Coe is right under the pasty, pimply skin of these boys, imbuing their voices with an equal mix of self-delusion and growing self-awareness. The closing chapter -- a dazzling and hilarious homage to the close of Joyce's Ulysses -- is narrated by Benjamin, whose bounding rants on first love reveal a heartbreaking naiveté.

And here, as he so brilliantly displayed in the gorgeous House of Sleep, he writes his female characters with delicacy and emotional punch. (The closing line of House of Sleep still resonates in my head, so achingly good it is.) Interestingly enough one of The Rotter's Club protagonists, Claire, takes the narrator's role in the upcoming sequel, The Closed Circle which, already published to acclaim in his native Britain, will be released in May in the United States. Set twenty years later, The Closed Circle answers some of the questions raised in The Rotter's Club. Once you have read one, you'll be anxious to read another.


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