Book Review: Number 11
Author: Jonathan Coe
Plot summary: Childhood friends Rachel and Alison are about to go on a journey into the strange, surreal heart of Britain in the early years of our new century. Helplessly swept along on tides they can no more understand than control, Rachel and Alsion discover a nation disillusioned by reality yet obsessed with reality TV. They encounter morally bankrupt bankers and people queuing at food banks. And at the centre of this new state of things they find an old family who will do anything to ensure that the country is run for their benefit. (Source: Penguin back cover)
First, I have to admit that I had never heard of Jonathan Coe before, and now, I regret having already sent my Christmas list to all my possible Santas (a bright side to having divorced parents and being married, you celebrate Christmas at least 3 times every year! ), because I would like so much to read his other novels. Beginning with the actual prequel to Number 11: What a Carve up!
Indeed, this book was designed as the sequel to another book. I only found that out after I finished reading Number 11, but I think it is not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy the second one (I guess it might, however, help understand some parts more acurately, or be more funny when you recognize a past event or a character).
I really enjoyed reading this book. One clue to that is that I didn't just wait for 11:00pm to read before going to sleep, I actually picked the book anytime instead of watching series on my computer (and that means a lot!), and I spent half a day reading in order to finish it!
I love reading English books, but English is not my mother tongue. Moreover, I don't like long descriptions (whatever the language), and I like dialogues (not just dialogues, but a few once in a while don't hurt anyone...). And Number 11 was very easy to read, with dialogues and descriptions not longer than a paragraph. I found Jonathan Coe's style quite enjoyable, what with all the little (and somehaow funny) details he sometimes adds for a more realistic effect.
Something which might puzzle the reader a bit at the beginning is the structure of the book. There are multiple stories, told by multiple narrators (sometimes in the same story), and at the beginning, I somehow felt a bit frustrated to leave the two girl characters and to follow someone else. In the additionnal part about his sources at the end of the book, the author himself questions his book's structure: “is Number 11 really a novel, or an anthology of linked novellas?”. Ideed, those novellas are all linked to the preceeding and the next one (and thereby, to all of them) by common characters, however small the link appears at first. And they all tell a general story, or at least, they all develop a general theme throughout the book.
Or rather, general themes, such as the new communication technologies and the dangers of nostalgia, the development of reality TV, the whys, hows need or absence of need of comedy, the gap between the rich and the poor, how to assign a value to something intangible... In short, what are the values of our modern society? The characters live in a world which becomes (or rather, reveals itself as) more and more absurd as you go further in the story, and this serves the main genre of the book: satire.
I say main genre, because each novella is written in a different style, with references to different genres: there is a parody of detective story, as well as first-person narratives and parts which clearly border on the gothic and the fantastic. And although you never give a good HAHA laugh, you can't miss the undertone of comedy, as Jonathan Coe pictures more and more ridiculous situations, or even characters. The text itself sometimes comments on its own absurdity (is there really such a thing as a black one-legged lesbian who lives on benefits of whom the Winshaw mother-and-daughter columnists have made scapegoats? Well /spoiler alert\ yes there is! /end of spoiler alert\
And what was quite enjoyable was to discover why such character had done or said this and that in an earlier novella, how all these texts make sense together, how they are part of the same universe, all intertwined (which is something I always appreciate in a book, such as one of my favorites (a child book), Howl's moving castle, by Diana Wynne Jones). I must admit feeling a little sorry for the black lesbian character when I read that, on top of that (not that I am against black and/or lesbians, but it was already something of a handicap to her social life – beeing asked odd questions by old people in the countryside, beeing called a pervert by a dear friend...), she had had an amputation and now walked with a fake leg. But this character somehow sounded unreal, just a satirical character. But when I arrived at the end, I got a new look on how Jonathan Coe's brilliant satirical mind constructed the novel.
This book thus presents a number of reflexions on our modern society. Some questions are asked – and answered – by the characters: two friends promise each other never to use comm technologies when they can talk to each other face to face, the forgotten Popstar singer finally realises that she doesn't want to be part of this crooked showbusiness world anymore... But other questions are asked by the novel itself; by the situations pictured, by the interconnexion of the novellas and the characters... And those questions don't all get to be answered.
And this is the only thing that I was a little disappointed with. Not that we don't get all the answers at the end, satire is not meant to give all the answers, rather to point at the questions, or problems. But rather that the end was so quick and that I didn't really understand it . Also, after around 340 pages of building interconnexions, I was expecting them to converge in a little more extraordinary conclusion, an ultimate interconnexion that I failed to sense. I also didn't understand why things work out so well for some characters who have been through so tough experiences throughout the book. As if it was a reward, somehow, for living this experience for us to reflect on it. But in my opinion, this undermined a bit the general atmosphere built by satire throughout the book.
For a better review, read this ^^
Tags : England, humour, satire, book
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