A terrible privacy

I've long been a fan of Jonathan Coe, having fallen in love with his great comic novel, The Rotters Club some time ago. The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim is another great read. Often laugh out loud funny, the closing pages of the novel had me in tears. For someone who's not usually moved to tears by books that's a pretty good recommendation.

An opening quote from The fall and rise of Reginald Perrin lets the reader know straight away what sort of story they can expect - Maxwell Sim is, like Perrin, a middle-aged salesman down on his luck. His wife and daughter have left him, his life is full of regrets, his father is in Australia and doesn't seem to like him very much; but what will lead Sim, who seems to be Britain's most boring man, to end up halfway up a Scottish mountain in a snowstorm, roaring drunk in a Toyota Prius? The book traces the ecologically friendly toothbrush salesman's journey around Britain, bumping into ghosts of his youth, revealing the truth behind his parents' marriage, and his own clumsy relationships. A web of relationships is formed, some dissolve around him, others transform his life. It is poignant, often very funny, and guaranteed to make you reflect on your own life and relationships.

Sim is not a particularly loveable character. But it's hard not to be moved by this story of lost opportunities, Sim's struggles with depression, and the fragility of relationships. It's also got a brilliant, if rather unsettling, twist, I haven't been so shocked by a novel since "that" death in A canticle for Leibowitz. I loved Maxwell Sim, and was as disappointed as the character himself when the novel ended abruptly.

Some reviewers, I know, have struggled with Sim's growing fixation on the doomed yachtsman, Donald Crowhurst, and the way in which time becomes fluid in the novel moving backwards and forwards. I actually found Sim's fixation perfectly plausible; although Coe's attempts to align the voyages of Sim and Crowhurst was, I think, less successful. The fluidity of time though, I thought worked well, adding a feeling of dislocation to the plot which fitted in with Sim's own growing struggles. Coe also plays with the reader, introducing books and people who really do exist, while Sim plays with becoming a writer himself. All of this adds to the sense of dislocation and uneasiness mirroring Sim's own mindset.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable if disconcerting read; and Coe's characters' reviews of Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall's book about Donald Crowhurst, and Rolt's 1930's take on canal life, Narrowboat, were so good that I immediately went to a library to borrow them (yes, they do exist, I'm not going mad). An effective play on the reader's suspension of belief. Do read The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim, you won't have read anything else quite like it. 


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