The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

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The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A highly enjoyable story of an alienated, sad, loner of a man. But what on earth happened to the last ten pages? Shockingly disappointing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670917389

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Meet Maxwell Sim. Actually, perhaps I should rephrase that so that it doesn't sound like an imperative instruction - for if you do meet him, you might not like the experience. An ex-salesman, he's now in after sales (ie he's stuck on a customer returns counter in a department store); however he is completely awful with regards to other people. His wife has run off with their daughter, all his few friends have forsaken him (and his Facebook wall). We start the book with him trying to patch things up with his father, who's safely in Australia. He finds all those who know of him are already aware he's depressed. Those who don't know him can find him painfully shy, or able to talk away their will to live, gabbling on and on about Watford. But a lot is about to change. He's about to be combined with some people excited about green toothbrushes.

As awful a man as he is, of course, Max is a delight to read about. He's an exceptional creation - strong in some ways, weak in others; aware yet very naive. We see him with sympathy as well as scornful hilarity. And some respect, too, as he sets off on a journey both across the country and into his past, through memories and re-encounters, with his new friend Emma (not what you think).

Other people here are equally enjoyable characters, and for a while it was not the plot I was loathe to divulge in case of spoilers, but the people Max meets. And whether seen briefly from on a park bench, or sought after with unfounded hopes of a relationship, it's Max's straining to interact with them that is the highlight of the entertainment here.

It's also at the heart of the book on a more serious level too. This is 2009, and the credit crunch is on. Nobody understands bankers and what they do, but at least Max can see the dangers presented by nobody else seeing the harm the consumerist society can cause. People can't get along with each other because there's money in between, or careers, or mistrust caused by ambition (or shyness).

This could be a regrettable side to the book if it were not so well judged. It's worn very lightly, and equally importantly, rings true - this is a Britain in 2009 we're all trying still to forget. (If there's a bum note to be heard it's Max's explorations of a motorway services that sound just like Coe's notes.)

Basically this is the alienated man strained through through the wringer of reductio ad absurdum, but very seldom does it come out mangled. There are copious big laughs from Max's misunderstandings, and from when he tries to balance two conversations at once. And let's not forget his relationship with Emma...

Overall the sense of humour is very amenable - I'd hate this book if it for one moment dropped its humanity, and went too scathing, too scornful of Max. He might have a lot to learn - and four times he receives a blatant lesson in the form of a larger font script from elsewhere, if he only but knew it - but the flawed man here is well within sight of flawlessness.

It's just a shame the last ten pages have been included, for they're horrid. I have no idea what was on Coe's mind with them. I can't say any more, of course, but they took a book that was so delightfully entertaining in making us forget we were reading such a tragedy, and let it end, not tragically, but disastruously. There is a case for saying the big, final revelation is a bit simplistic and unrealistic, but that's nothing compared to the conclusion.

I must thank Viking's kind people for my review copy. There is a host of things and characters to enjoy here, if you but stop early.

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Buy The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe at


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Tim said:

An original and deeply engaging book and it's some time since I enjoyed a novel this much, but the conclusion did remind me of those times as a young father when one's inspiration falters and the extemporised bedtime story suddenly ends with: 'but it was all a dream....'