The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, By Jonathan Coe

A perceptive Prius odyssey
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The Independent Culture

Even if his name wasn't on the cover, you'd know this was a Jonathan Coe novel.

A simple, readable style? Check. Inventive, intricate plotting, where every minor event has significance? Check. Moments of laugh-aloud comic brilliance? Check. Lonely, inadequate, undersexed male protagonist? Yes: Maxwell Sim. Reflections on how British society has changed since the Sixties? Yes, and as true and perceptive as ever. Women characters who are virtually fault-free, embodying good sense and kindliness? All present and correct. Sense of a controlling niceness behind the scenes? There as usual, although slightly compromised by a meta-fictional authorial intrusion at the end.

The story is impossible to summarise but ingredients include a new kind of toothbrush; an odyssey in a Prius to the Shetland Isles; Donald Crowhurst, the real-life cheating round-the-world yachtsman of the Sixties; conversations with a satnav; and the mystery of a folded photograph. Coe is a brilliant ventriloquist, adopting a pitch-perfect voice for newspaper reports, letters, a psychology student's essay and a short story from a creative writing group. I'm only sorry that he didn't include one of Maxwell's dad's poems, which I'm sure he'd have done to perfection. (If Coe hadn't chosen to be a novelist he could have been a first-rate parodist).

If you've enjoyed Coe's previous work, then several hours of reliable pleasure await you here.

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