This, quite simply, was a book I couldn’t put down. A coming of age novel set to the social backdrop of Birmingham in the 1970s, the book follows a group of teenagers and their families as they navigate adolescence, trade unions, girls and politics. Split into three sections, The Chick and the Hairy Guy, The Very Maws of Doom, and Green Coaster, each segment tells a different story of a different cultural era, whilst tracking the teenage boys’ progression into men. As the book progresses, their political awareness becomes more prominent, and the ending ties in with the election of Margaret Thatcher, and ‘the death of the socialist dream’. Jonathan Coe’s writing holds such a perceptive quality that it makes the characters almost tangible.
The main character, Benjamin Trotter, is a sensitive, confused boy, struggling with the muddle of emotions characteristic of youth – a romantic musician and experimenting writer (the last chapter of the book written from his perspective is all one sentence, comprised of 13955 words, and holds the record for the longest sentence in English literature), he is a thinker who finds God after finding a pair of swimming trunks in a locker; the punishment for forgetting them in P.E at King Edward’s School is swimming nude. His seemingly hopeless pursuit after the beautiful Cicely makes for a touching but relatable section of the plot, and serves as the perfect antidote to the heart-breaking effects of his best friend’s, Doug, father’s affair with the older sister of Claire, the girl his son is pining over.
My personal favourite character, Benjamin’s younger brother, Paul, is hilariously Conservative to the point of ridicule, with an iconic scene where he rides behind his older brother and his friends, fully aware he isn’t wanted, singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by the Sex Pistols in a choir-boy’s piercing voice, peddling furtively along on a child’s bike. The comedy in the book is not only side-splitting, but relatable, making for both an addictive read and a trigger for poignant thoughts. There are several twists along the way, one of which provoked an audible exclamation from me – it is very rare for a book to have such a lasting effect on someone, and I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone looking for guidance through their school days, or for anyone wishing to reflect upon the tangle and lessons of youth.
About the reviewer
Kitty Horsfall is 17 and studying for A-Levels in English Literature, History and Geography.