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The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

Tuesday June 8, 2010 in books read 2010 | jonathan coe

A silence fell between us, and I felt a mounting sense of frustration. Was this what it had come to, my relationship with my own daughter? Was this all she had to say to me? For God’s sake, we had lived together for twelve years: lived together in conditions of absolute intimacy. I had changed her nappies, I had bathed her. I had played with her, read to her, and sometimes, when she got scared in the middle of the night, she had climbed into my bed and snuggled up against me. And now – after living apart for little more than six months – we were behaving towards each other almost as if we were strangers. How was this possible?

Jonathan Coe: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell SimThere are many sequences like this in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Jonathan Coe portrays a man who grimly realises that his life has receded away to leave him desperately lonely and isolated, whilst at the same time having to come to terms with the realisation that, as a 48 year old, he doesn’t feel he’s reached adulthood at all. Coe achieves this with the perfect balance of comedy and despair revealed by his increasingly unhinged narrator. They are certainly fears I could well identify with.

We meet Maxwell Sim at a period in his life where he’s lost a lot. His wife and daughter have left him, resulting in a period of depression and inactivity. The novel begins in Australia, where he concludes an ineffective visit to his father, revealing an undeveloped and disappointing relationship between the two. During his final evening before returning home he watches a Chinese woman and her daughter at an adjacent table in a restaurant, their touching closeness to one another demonstrating to him that there are deep, mysterious relationships between human beings to be inspired by. Sim craves human contact, and the novel continues with a series of odd, often chance, encounters where his efforts to interact don’t always pull off (an early encounter results in his mugging).

Offered a job as a toothpaste salesman, Sim starts a journey to the most northern part of the British Isles. As he begins to lose touch with reality (visiting his father’s flat left unoccupied for more than twenty years, embarking on a failed romantic interlude with a childhood friend, starting a dubious dialogue with his Satnav), Sim begins to associate his plight with that of Donald Crowhurst, the lone yaughtsman who attempted to fake a round the world journey in the late 1960s. Worryingly, Crowhurst’s deception ended in madness and suicide…

Throughout the novel Coe cleverly weaves in other voices distinct to Sim’s often questionable view of life (this is man who marvels at the delights of the motorway services). An essay about Crowhurst, two stories based upon family holidays and his father’s candid journal dating from the early 1960s all offer insight into Maxwell’s make up. Sim’s methods for discovering these pieces are a little contrived, and what also let down slightly was the very, very odd ending. Sim finally meets the Chinese woman, but after offering an apparently neat resolution Coe slips unexpectedly into a different gear and finishes in a way that doesn’t gel with the rest of the book.

I’ll forgive him for that. The Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a whirlwind read which proved to me, counter to many of the recent reviews, that Coe hasn’t lost his knack for extremely well written novels. Despite appearing relatively lightweight, they tend to leave the reader reeling with the complexity of human emotion.

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The Rain Before It Falls

Friday November 16, 2007 in books read 2007 | jonathan coe

The walls and door of the kitchen are painted that creamy, brownish white that was so popular at the time. It was as if people were afraid to let any real light and brightness into their lives – or it had never occurred to them that they were allowed to do so.

Jonathan Coe is an author who just gets better and better. From What a Carve Up!, through to The House of Sleep, The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle, I’ve found his fiction always inventive and witty. His latest, The Rain Before It Falls, is his strangest piece to date. Experimental, serious, different, it may prove to be the oddity in Coe’s collected work. Or it may be the beginning of a new, more mature, stage in his writing career.

Jonathan Coe: The Rain Before It Falls

The novel is written from the point of view of Rosamond, whose first person narrative comes in the unusual form of a set of C90 cassettes found after her death. Even more unusual, they comprise of a series of monologues describing a set of twenty photographs to a blind girl. Coe sets himself a tricky challenge, but one that ushers in many opportunities for the ambitious writer. How we rely on photographs to record the truth and how they never really can, the comparison between amateur snapshots of life (the photograph) with art (a portrait painting), the problems with memory and narrative when emotion clouds and gets in the way, the sober realisation that life is never neat and can never be comfortably catalogued and filed away; it’s all here.

The premise of The Rain Before It Falls is a difficult one, and a less skilled writer could easily get bogged down with the conceit, but Coe manages to use it only as a framing device. The real strength of the novel is the story, with the descriptions of the photographs serving to add a touch of originality. Rosamond unfolds the history of her childhood friendship with the unruly Beatrix, and her subsequent encounters with her family which lead to the tragic story of Imogen, the blind girl in question. Rosumond is full of regret, and longing, and ultimately her efforts lead nowhere; it’s a sad and moving tale.

One of Jonathan Coe’s strength as a novelist is his eye for social history and detail. He doesn’t give the impression that he’s researched anything; he just appears to know his stuff. In one chapter Rosamond describes the interior of a 1950s kitchen. The decor, its limitations, the whole rhyme and reason for it comes alive because Coe just appears to be in touch with this distinct moment in history, a very real and English kitchen; ordinary, drab, but very, very real. He’s also reached the Ian McEwan stage where he can tackle complex ideas quite effortlessly; he makes great writing appear easy. I’m going to be watching his next move very closely.

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