Thursday, 9 February 2012

A Touch Of Love - Jonathan Coe

I like Jonathan Coe, rating his novel The Rotters Club, as one of the very best books I've ever read, and its sequel The Closed Circle is very good too. But unlike my friend Jo ( I'm a bit of a crap fan, because I am remiss in not having read  more, or indeed, everything Coe has written, and so on a recent rare trip to the library (I tend to buy books, stalking charity shops and Waterstones) I decided to rectify this a little and picked up one of his earliest novel - indeed his second, published in 1989 -  A Touch Of Love

The book has been waiting patiently on my 'To Read' pile for about a fortnight now. I had intended to start on another book last night, but found my heart wasn't really in it, and so picked up A Touch Of Love and read the first 14 pages and, finding it more suited to my mood, I looked forward to reading more today.

It was so good, I've actually read it all in virtually one sitting this afternoon!

I'm not a great book reviewer (my friend Fiona is though; but I will say that the themes Coe develops in this book; that we only relate to one another via vague and ultimately insubstantial conversation and never truly know anyone, and the thorny issue of human relationships and whether sex gets in the way, and just the general restrictive and disappointing established order we have to conform to in life and how we don't challenge or query it enough, are handled beautifully.

A quick scan at other reviews had left me a little baffled; too often words like 'melancholic' are levelled at the book and there's a general complaint that the characters are 'hard to care about' especially the main character, Robin. Personally, I think there is nothing wrong with melancholia and an air of listlessness to the novel when that is what the characters are struggling with. Also I found Robin quite likeable and certainly easy to empathise with and Coe actually revealed he based him on himself to some extent.

The structure of the book is great; set in the Coventry of the mid 80s we see life through the eyes of Robin, a former Cambridge 'friend' Ted, the listless academics Huw and Aperna, and-after a tragic misunderstanding-Robin's lawyer, Emma. Interspersed within these chapter length differing perspectives are four short stories written by Robin that convey and run in parallel with the story and especially the main themes of the book as previously stated. They're also quite wickedly hilarious in places; the first story which discusses how isolated from our neighbours we have become relates the tale of a group of neighbours who address their Christmas cards as 'To all at 48, from all at 49'  because no one actually knows their neighbours. The bitter humourous conclusion being that when the family  commit mass suicide, the note reads 'Goodbye cruel world, from all at 48' 
Whilst another story details a character who lives by the fatalistic principle of accidents and chance directing him through life, with some genuinely funny examples. Indeed it put me in mind of the 80s Channel 4 sitcom Chance In A Million with Simon Callow. 

I wonder how it was greeted on the initial publication in 1989 because if anything I think the themes are more contemporary and valid now. It's chilling to think how little we've come from one of Robin's nervous preoccupations; terrorism and the notion of the West's motives in its reaction not being as decent and pure as we'd like, especially as the book makes specific reference to Libya and Gaddafi's activities in the 80s and of course, any reader today cannot help but think of the events of The Arab Spring last year.
I also think that in this present day of communication via social networking sites we're actually knowing less and less about people, even though on paper-or rather, screen-or social circles are on the rise. 

Lastly I thought I'd share an actual photo of Coventry's Anarchy Bridge which features in the book. The graffiti pictured below is actually referenced word for word by Coe

I haven't really got more to say; I told you, I'm not very good at book reviewing. But I enjoyed this book and if you don't mind a bit of melancholia and are able to laugh at the cruel absurdities of life, then please read this book. It's only 231 pages and as I've proved it can be read in less than one day.


  1. I have to admit to this being one of the Coe books I didn't enjoy quite as much. It's brilliantly written of course as it always is but when I came to the end I didn't think "wow that was a great book". Just my opinion =/

    On the other hand, if you fancy reading another of his books soon I can highly reccommend either The House of Sleep or The Rain Before It Falls. These were the 2 books that threatened to steal the crown of The Rotters' Club as my favourite book!

    1. I've been meaning to read The House Of Sleep. Another to add to the To Read pile!