Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. I was in bookselling at the time and my Penguin rep and good friend, A, gave me a proof, praising it to the skies. Twenty years later and the Winshaws are back. Thanks to A who handed over a copy of Number 11 when we met for lunch last weekend I’ve been chortling over their return. Sadly, Coe has just as much to satirise now as he did all those years ago and much of it in the same vein.
Ten-year-old Rachel and her friend Alison are visiting Rachel’s grandparents when the news of David Kelly’s death breaks. It’s the first death, perhaps the first bit of news, that Rachel registers and it has a profound effect on her. She and Alison make an uneasy alliance. It’s their mothers who are the real friends, both single parents hoping for a bit of fun during their break in the sun. When Alison finds what she thinks is a dead body together with a few playing cards – one marked distinctively with a spider – she drags a reluctant Rachel off to see it, only to find the corpse has disappeared. Suddenly a hand seizes a second playing card left abandoned, terrifying the girls. The hand belongs to the Mad Bird Woman who Rachel remembers flying a kestrel one half-term visit with her brother. Alison, by far the sassier of the two, persuades Rachel that they need to get to the bottom of the mystery. Taking their courage in their hands, they visit No 11, the house on Needless Alley where the Mad Bird Woman lives, and find that appearances are not always what they seem. Coe’s novel follows Rachel and Alison over the next decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws, taking swipes at all manner of things from reality TV to factory farming along the way.
‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is obilque, slippery’ notes one of Coe’s characters in an essay on film. Maybe Coe’s warning us about thinking of Number 11 as a sequel to What a Carve Up! but the ghosts of the Winshaw family, who met such a satisfyingly sticky end, are everywhere. Perhaps it’s a political comment rather than a literary one. Whichever, Number 11 bears many familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references reflecting his early career as a cinema critic. The final section is a winning combination of Ealing Comedy and B-movie horror. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have nots. People who look like you or me are forced to resort to food banks while Rachel’s employers dig down eleven floors for a basement for one of their six homes just because they can. This is Coe’s eleventh novel – expect the number eleven to pop up again and again – but something tells me that the Number 11 he has in his sights is the chancellor’s. Maybe it’s that infamous George Osborne quote ‘We’re all in this together’ which precedes the final chapter, What a Whopper! Bit of a giveaway.