We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane: Mustn’t grumble

Cover image for We Need to Talk by Jonathan CraneThere was the hint of a state-of-the-nation novel about the blurb for Jonathan Crane’s We Need to Talk, a theme I find hard to resist whether it’s mine or someone else’s nation. It’s also published by small indie Eye/Lightning Books whose Good Riddance and  An Isolated Incident I enjoyed very much. Crane’s novel is set in the English market town of Sudleigh, following its inhabitants through 2019 when the chickens of the EU referendum are on their way home to roost.

It opens with a meeting to resist plans for a new housing estate at which Martin is reluctantly elected spokesman, knowing that his wife, who has seized upon the role of district councillor since their daughters left home, will be furious. Others have embraced the space where family once was, taking Spanish and art lessons but some, like Miss Bennett, resort to more unusual solutions to loneliness, taking her house on and off the market. Relationships are often strained, work pressures get in the way and plans for the future are disrupted: Emma frets about her recently widowed father, neglecting her own grief; Tom finds himself unable to share the news of his university offers thanks to his mother’s controlling boyfriend; Josh’s dreams of becoming a chef are scuppered by his well meaning uncle’s offer of the family carpet business. Throughout the year, Tony and Lydia’s relationship falters then rekindles, despite his reluctance and her disappointment. Just as the new year starts, when everyone has their eyes on Brexit, there’s news of a nasty virus which seems to have reached Italy.

How are you, Brian?… …Oh, on the crest of a slump, thank you Heather

Crane structures his novel as a series of thumbnail portraits, presenting a snapshot of a small town, post-referendum, pre-Brexit. He has a knack of capturing the prosaic everyday with humour and compassion. Each character has a story through which others flit, sometimes as mere mentions, so that we catch up with them throughout a year which will encompass rivalries, jealousies, bereavements and pregnancies just as in any other year but this one is a little more significant. There’s much to enjoy in this quintessentially English novel which left me wondering how Crane’s characters would cope with the pandemic as Tony and Lydia watch the news together so caught up in their disagreement they barely notice the mention of what’s described as a flu-like illness reported in Italy.

If, by any chance, I’ve tempted you to buy a copy of We Need to Talk you might like to consider ordering one via Eye/Lightning’s website. They’re a small indie, celebrating their twenty-first birthday this year.

Eye Books: Much Wenlock 9781785632389 263 pages Paperback

16 thoughts on “We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane: Mustn’t grumble”

  1. This sounds great. I’ve been wondering about the value of reading pre-pandemic Brexit novels, given what we know now, but it sounds as if Crane has been able cleverly to weave in that recognition of things to come as extra context.

  2. I always think a state of the nation novel is so ambitious, I really admire anyone who can take it on! This does sound really well done – I like the idea of thumbnail portraits building a whole picture over time.

  3. This sounds like a terrific macro-micro exploration. And there should be a long article about all the books with cracked porcelain and china on their covers, especially novels!

  4. I wonder if he had to make last minute changes to mention the pandemic! I remember reading about an author who was halfway through a novel with her British main character based in the EU Parliament, when suddenly the Brexit vote happened and she had to go right back to the beginning and change the whole thing. The curse of writing contemporary fiction!

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