Jonathan Coe is a British, very British, author, whose six published novels can be easily distilled into two equal parts. The first three, short, and elegantly simple, are the early work of an author
establishing himself, his ideas, and his voice. They are easy, uncomplicated works, built on
strong characters in their respective microcosms. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes not much
happens. They start, and they finish sometime later, without leaving an indelible impression in the
reader's mind. Nonetheless, they are well worth investigating (although readers in the US may still
find they have not been published there yet).
Coe's first novel, "The Accidental Woman", tells the life of its female protagonist from
school, through university and beyond, and although the most straightforward of Coe's novels, even in
this story, Coe shows his willingness to play with the form, narrating the story as if from the
viewpoint of an almost casual observer of the events in Maria's life.
In "A Touch of Love", Coe continues to write unconventionally, constructing his characters'
stories - in the main, the characters are lost, but unable to grab the chances life fleetingly offers
them - in four sections, while in "The Dwarves of Death", Coe covers some of his favourite ground,
music, in the story of a keyboard player who is convinced he is witness to a murder committed by the
dwarves of the book's title. Although the interwoven story strands hint of Coe's later
stylings, this book, and its two predecessors provide few hints to the sudden development and
breakthrough in Coe's work.
"What A Carve Up!", winner of the John Llewellyn Rhees Prize in 1995, is a startling revelation.
An impressively broad work, it satirises British Society, and the upper-classes, in the form of the
ghastly Winshaw family, who display between them, most of the now laughed at or despised traits
that typified the 1980s. On a creative roll, Coe followed it up with the award-winning "The House of Sleep", a story
of reality, confusion and misunderstanding, two stories really, one set in 1996 and one in 1983, with
events from both taking place in the same sleep clinic.
Coe's latest work, "The Rotters' Club", has received more mixed reviews than the previous two.
Like What A Carve Up!, it is an expansive novel, this time focussing on the 1970s, reviewing the
decade's events through events in the lives of Benjamin Trotter, his family, his friends, and their
families. Although on this occasion Coe's desire to write anything other than a straightforward novel
often distracts from the excellence of the work, as with all his novels, the set-pieces, touching
and humourous, mostly make amends. A sequel to the book will be Coe's next fictional outing, while he is also currently working on a biography of one of his heroes, B.S.Johnson.
Sources and further reading: