Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

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Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A state-of-the-nation satire finely balanced between humour and polemic as well as a good story to boot.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368/11h46m Date: November 2015
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670923793

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There's a great deal of significance in the title of Number 11. It's the common abbreviation for the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as a bus route around the outskirts of Birmingham which provides a useful haven for those who can't afford to put the heating on at home. It's also Jonathan Coe's eleventh novel. On a level more personal to the characters in the book it's also the number of floors below ground which are being added to a house in Chelsea owned by an obscenely-rich family. Even more obscene is the fact that the owner of the house doesn't know what she wants that floor for - everything that could possibly be added (swimming pool with palm trees, wine cellar, bank vault, staff quarters...) is on the other floors or in the house itself. But Mrs Gunn wants it because she can have it.

For those who read Coe's 1994 novel What a Carve Up, this is a sequel, providing more insights into the life of the Winshaw family. It's fair to say that the remnants of the family have not improved with age - but don't worry if you haven't read What a Carve Up as Number 11 reads perfectly well as a standalone. This time the family dirty their hands, but feed their bank accounts by the exploitation of migrants, reality television, tabloid journalism, ordnance clearance after overseas conflict and tax avoidance on an industrial scale. It's good to know that they're keeping up with the times.

The story revolves around Rachel, who becomes tutor to the Gunn family's two daughters and it's an ingenious thread to follow. We meet her first as the daughter of a barrister staying at her grandparents' home in Beverley in Yorkshire with a schoolfriend and follow as events take us to Birmingham, Australia, South Africa and London and we watch the gradual erosion of her innocence. It's state-of-the-nation (there's a delightful play on the phrase as a policeman is nicknamed 'Nate of the Station') satire and it treads a narrow path between humour and political polemic, but it's the boorish monied classes who're on the losing side.

I listened to the book as an audio download narrated by Jessica Hynes and Rory Kinnear. I was particularly impressed by Hynes, who carries most of the book. She has an excellent command of all the voices and I was rarely in doubt about who was speaking. Whilst not quite akin to listening to a play with added narration it was a pleasure to listen to the download.

This is the point at which I normally thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag - but I bought the book as an audio download.

For more from Jonathan Coe, try The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim or Expo 58. If the theme of this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Capital by John Lanchester.

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