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Brits During Wartime

Coe's largely satisfying sequel

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In English author Jonathan Coe's new novel, he picks up where he left off with The Rotter's Club, skips 20 years and lets the healing effect of time wash over his characters. They march into the new millennium, struggling with (or profiting by) the closing of a Birmingham car manufacturing plant, reverberating with (or ignoring) the shock of 9/11 and questioning (or supporting) Tony Blair and New Labour, as the War in Iraq begins.

Middle-aged now, the Trotter siblings and their friends from adolescence reunite for political, personal or accidental reasons in a series of events that are both mundane and of global importance. A marriage ends, an extra-marital affair poisons a family, the mystery of a missing sibling is solved, the identity is found of a student who drugged another before A-level exams, and a promising kid becomes a reclusive, anti-Semitic supporter of jihad.

Regrettably, Coe plants the seeds of the next generation's problems with a very heavy hand. Characters are "impatient," "self-satisfied," and "casual[ly] impudent," and they voice disdain about technology, road rage, corporate greed and even children.

About 200 pages into the novel, cynical observations become telltale symptoms of a larger problem Coe ultimately addresses: the eternal human conflict of balancing freedom and responsibility. "People have to accept responsibility for themselves. That's all."

What Coe does best is acerbically point out that we are, in fact, in control of this massive thing called history, which unfolds as we hurtle headlong through time with the help of a few friends, family members and lovers — if we mind the details. Any book that lets Americans and English understand what their two great democracies are really doing right now is needed.

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