Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

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Reviewed by Annabel

I was lucky enough to have discovered Jonathan Coe fairly early on in his career, back when the paperback edition of What a Carve Up! was published in 1994. It was actually his fourth novel, but his social satire about Thatcherism was a huge comedic success and put him on the map. In it, we met the awful Winshaw family, most of whom came to a sticky end – but not quite all of them.

Number 11 is not strictly speaking a sequel to What a Carve Up!, but it does bring back the surviving Winshaws into its cast of characters. It really isn’t necessary to read the older volume first, but after reading about the awful survivors of this dynasty, you may well find yourself wondering about the rest of that awful family and return to What a Carve Up!.

The cover of the proof copy of Number 11 says boldly “Jonathan Coe takes on twenty-first century Britain” and he certainly does. It is told in a series of extended vignettes, mostly seen through the eyes of Rachel and her best friend Alison, who are not yet teenagers when the story begins.

Coe starts seriously with a touchstone moment for Rachel, with her realisation that there is a wider world outside her experience when she hears about the tragedy of biological warfare expert David Kelly’s death. Rachel and Alison are holidaying with Rachel’s relatives in Yorkshire when this happens. It is reinforced when Alison thinks she’s found a body in the woods with some strange playing cards by it – one with a spider on it. Returning to the body, it’s gone – he’s alive, and the former kestrel-owning Mad Bird Woman as they used to call her comes to take him back into her care.

The Mad Bird Woman lives at Number 11 Needless Alley – the first number 11 in this book of many, and when Alison persuades Rachel to be nosy, they find out that appearances can be deceptive, but Rachel hangs onto that mysterious spider card.

The girls grow up, Rachel goes off to Oxford and Alison finds her own rather different way in the world. They remain dear friends though, until a rift is driven between them and it’ll take years to patch things up. Coe shows us the different paths taken by both and the disastrous effects that the banking crisis and subsequent austerity measures have had on the working class and poorest folk in Britain. The poor get poorer, living on benefits and food bank handouts will become Alison and her mum’s lot after her mum’s career as a singer falters after she is pilloried on a reality TV show – it was all in the edit.

The rich are getting richer, and Rachel gets a lucky break as a tutor to the children of a super-rich family, who think nothing of flying her out to Lausanne for the afternoon to prepare their twins for their little maths test, and of extending their Chelsea mansion (no 11) underground – planning 11 subterranean levels including a swimming pool – I mean, why not?

Rachel, based on the staff side of this house, finds it a lonely life – most of the huge houses aren’t occupied. Her friend Livia, a Romanian dog-walker recounts a conversation with another dog-walker:

‘Think about it,’ she said. ‘A house like this may be worth thirty-five million pounds. Its value appreciates at the rate of ten percent – three and a half million every year. That’s seventy thousand pounds a week. Ten thousand pounds every day. What else do you have to do, apart from buy it, and then just leave it alone?’

Coe’s novel is full of such bitter truths, slipped in amongst the comedy.

Two policemen provide both a breather, and an avenue to bring the surviving Winshaws truly into the frame. There is the publicity hungry DCI Capes, who’s yearning to earn the nickname of the ‘Caped Crusader’ and the altogether more interesting PC Nathan Pilbeam, known by his colleagues as ‘Nate of the Station’, who has a radical new method of profiling cases, as he writes in the Police magazine:

To understand motive, one must understand what motivates: and this involves taking into account the effect of economics and environment, culture and capital, landscape and cityscape, the politics of identity and the politics of party. To solve an English crime, committed by an English criminal, one must contemplate the condition of England itself.

In his own time, Nathan is profiling the murder of several comedians, and believes he has found a link to the Josephine Winshaw-Eaves, who writes a column of polemic in a newspaper reminiscent of the Daily Beast.

This all sounds rather grim; indeed, the hard facts underneath this novel make for uneasy reading, yet the whole is at the same time very funny. Coe is sure of his targets and hounds them doggedly through the pages, while we laugh with the less fortunate characters through the series of comic scenes, mishaps, failures and even successes that populate this novel, over which that other ‘Number 11’ looms. It’s Coe at his best.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Jonathan Coe, Number 11 (Penguin, 2015)  978-0670923793, Hardback, 368 pages.

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