Monday, 25 June 2012

The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe

What do we recall from our own schooldays – not always a great deal in detail. However, reading Jonathon Coe's novel set in the 1970's, which draws on his own teenage schooldays, all those characters we knew – the pupils, their parents, prefects and teachers – come back to us because it seems that whatever school we went to there are inevitable types.

The bully, a wise-cracker, the swot, an arty one and so on; parents who were easy going, ones that were tough, others who were wild or incredibly straight. Teacher types, too, have not changed; some we liked, hated, admired or fooled. The Rotter's Club has them all and so memories of one's own schooldays cannot help but come flooding back.

And, if you lived in the 1960's, it is the descriptions of the places, rooms, cars and so on that bring back fond memories of bedrooms and living rooms, journeys, clothes and food. But also come less comfortable memories of the embarrassments, insecurities or disappointments of teenage years.

Coe starts the novel with two young people remembering a tale told by their parent. Unfortunately this is not believable although, fortunately, reading it one forgets until suddenly brought back to this device at the close.

The idea Coe had that the school could be portrayed as a microcosm of the world may have worked had not the antics of the parents also been included. In addition, looking back in hind-sight is not always an easy thing to achieve in literature and, at times, Coe falls into the trap of his characters 'knowing' things they could not, of setting up historical references or of including other events of the time to beef up a point. On the other hand, momentous events that happen to his characters – death, its aftermath, bullying, terrorism - are oddly minimised or left unexplained.

Jonathan Coe is a good writer and a well written book is an easy to read book. But the structure of this novel is a bit choppy, some events too far-fetched and it is way, way too long. Nevertheless, there is real humour - in some places laugh out loud funny - although now and then it dissolves into slapstick. The dialogue is also often very well observed and the descriptions, here and there, excellent.

Those of our group who enjoyed the book most were those who were at school in that era – to a great extent because they could reminisce – whilst others only enjoyed some aspects of it. Personally I think of it as a good holiday read – not perfect but readable and light. Other's, however, did not enjoy it one bit. So, it is a Curate's Egg sort of book and, perhaps, if one wants to start reading Coe, not the best of his to start with.