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"The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe

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In Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club we learn up close and personal about the perils and pitfalls of coming of age in 1970s Birmingham. We experience this through the lives of a small group of sixteen and seventeen year-olds Brummies: the loves (or crushes, really), the budding interests and careers, the divide between Tory and Labor - it’s all here. Adolescent drama, and some very adult issues too, leavened with a series of hysterical interludes involving these sympathetic characters - these are the constituent parts of Coe’s enjoyable fiction.

Ben Trotter, a Birmingham sixth-former, anchors these stories. A gentle, highly  intelligent soul, he reads widely of the classics, and has ambitions both literary and musical. His yearning for the far-off and inaccessible Cicely generates considerable energy in this narrative; it is a story that runs the length of the book, and has its own twists and turns. British socialist labor strife plays a large role, not only as backdrop, but as a prime mover and shaper of these young people’s lives. There is a divide here, too, perhaps more deeply marked in the pre-Thatcher Britain. Factory workers routinely go out on strike, reciting the principles of international socialism. And the teenagers fall to one side or the other, essentially as their families go.



I enjoyed the experience of reading The Rotters’ Club. Its characters tug at our feelings with a kind of partisan energy: kind vs. grasping, ambitious vs. rambunctious, idealistic vs. cynical. All through it, these young people and adults act and react with true human impulses, and Coe keeps us tethered with enough twists and turns to satisfy. At length, this does not measure up to The House of Sleep, my other exposure to Coe. Fun, gratifying, diverting, reflective of the zeitgeist of the moment, this book is passable reading, but it doesn’t strive for the stratosphere, which frankly, I expected from a novel by Coe.