Book review – Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Dear Mr Coe,

I have read and deeply enjoyed a few of your earlier books, What A Carve Up! (published in 1994), The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004).

Your plots and characters in those garlanded earlier works were an intoxicating mix of black humour, political satire and plain good writing.

I’ve just finished your latest novel, Number 11 (published November 2015). It’s a sharply observed book again but – and this is difficult to say – I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy it. Well, I suppose I did on some level. But certainly nowhere near as much as those earlier novels.

The plot feels – erm – disjointed? I know it eventually links together several plot strands, disparate characters and has recurring themes, but in the end it feels more like a short story collection than a fully rounded novel.

And you’ve dumped your fears for contemporary Britain on your readers’ shoulders, like a victim forcing others to share his pain.

We get that you lean to the left. A fair old way. But that you were very disappointed with Tony Blair.

You’re not the only person who was sad and confused when weapons inspector David Kelly – of dodgy Iraq dossier fame – died.

Yes, bankers have always earned obscene amounts of money.

You’re right, it can’t be morally ok for wealthy foreigners to buy up swathes of prime central London properties, just to let them lie fallow, as their value increases still further.

The list of your bêtes noires is almost endless, characters and plot twists used shamelessly to smack us over the faithful head with.

I know you’re playing with your readers’ minds with the recurring use of 11 throughout the book, but really, it’s all just a bit artificial in the end, isn’t it? A tad contrived? Especially the superfluous 11th floor of the basement of Sir Gilbert and Madiana’s mega-mansion in a posh London neighbourhood.

“Number Eleven? He (Tony Blake, the building project manager) laughed. That’s the one she told me about this morning. Number Eleven is new. She’s only just asked for it.”

“So – what’s it for?”

“Nothing. She can’t think of anything she wants it for.”

Rachel frowned. “So why are you digging it? Why does she want it?”

“She wants it,” said Mr Blake, “because she can have it. Because she can afford it. And because…I don’t know – because no one else has an eleventh floor in their basement? Or she’s just heard about somebody who has ten and she wants to go one better? Who knows? She’s mad. These people are all barking mad.”

We get it. Some people have everything. More people have nothing. Life isn’t fair. Wealth isn’t evenly distributed. Some people need to go to food banks. Others can dig 11 floors down for their new basement.

Maybe I’m wrong. I know you’re a successful, clever writer and I’m sure your reputation and the publisher will shift a few copies of Number 11 off the shelves. But please – for the sake of a loyal fan – can you just go back to doing what you do best, and what made your deserved reputation.

If I say that 11 times, would it help?

Yours, hopefully.

Andrew

 

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