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Book 14: The Accidental Woman, Jonathan Coe

Part of the problem with all this reading and writing about it is, of course, that by the time I get round to writing the blog post the book is a distant memory. In the case of this Jonathan Coe novel, this disconnect is actually rather fitting. I read way back in the high heat of summer (remember that?), slightly ironic, as there's a lot of drizzle in the book. Coe's first novel, it is fairly clearly the work of a young man, full of smart arse artistic flourishes and asides to the reader (can you tell I'm annoyed I didn't write it? This is the sort of thing I used to think I'd never get away with), a book of clear ambition which ultimately doesn't quite hang together.

The plot, such as it is, follows the life of a young (and then less young) woman called Maria who, for want of a better phrase, can't be arsed. Not that she's totally indifferent to the world around her, she recognises enough to interact with it in a reasonably usual manner: school, university, marriage, job. It's just that most the time she's doing these things they don't greatly seem to matter to her. All of the action happens off the page (the horrors of her marriage are largely glossed over, something happens to her brother, her childhood home burns down), but Maria just drifts onwards, vaguely disappointed; you could, if you slant your head and crinkle your eyes a bit, read this as incredibly sad, but it's hard to do so. As a stylistic exercise it's interesting, and it makes for a diverting read. But some of the old truisms they teach you in creative writing classes are truisms for a reason, and one of those is that it helps if you care about the characters. It's impossible not to respond to Maria's indifference with indifference of your own. I imagine that that was Coe's intention, it's almost a challenge to the reader: can you stick with this, when I'm giving you nothing? There are shafts of sunlight amidst the fog: her tender university friendship, the recurring jokes of Ronnie's proposals, but they only serve (presumably deliberately) to further dampen the prevailing tone.

But stick with it you do, at least if you're me,, because, for all of his mildly infuriating tropes (possibly rendered so as a few decades of this sort of thing have inured us to their surprise value), Coe is a fluid and readable writer. Always entertaining, always witty. Substance came later though, his later books are more fully realised novels, the anger that drives What a Carve Up! or the almost unbearable esprit d'escalier of The Rotters Club playing off his cleverness to make satisfying books. This is slighter, less fulfilling, but a reasonable pointer of things to come.

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