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
-- is narrated by Benjamin, whose bounding rants on first love reveal a heartbreaking
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.