Jonathan Coe's reading list

Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

Jonathan Coe has published 13 books and wrote his first, a detective thriller called The Castle of Mystery, at the impressive age of eight.

Moving to London in the heady 80s, Coe pursued the creative life, writing songs for his short-lived band The Peer Group and a feminist cabaret group called Wanda and the Willy Warmers, but found international success with his fourth novel, What a Carve Up!

This was followed by The Rotters’ Club which was adapted as a BBC series in 2005 and scripted by two of his boyhood heroes, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Porridge and The Likely Lads. 

His latest, Middle England, has just won the 2019 Costa Award for Best Novel. In it he navigates the choppy waters of British life in the years before and immediately after the Brexit referendum, exploring the impact on people up and down the country.

We spoke to him as he learned of the win, and he told us what he loves to read in his downtime. 

Pratt à Manger by David Nobbs

David Nobbs, the author of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (which surely deserves to be a Penguin Modern Classic if any book does) was one of my very favourite writers. His work enabled me to see how a book can be hilariously funny and deeply melancholic at the same time. He wrote 17 novels, and last year I suddenly realised, with a jolt of pleasurable shock, that there was still one I’d never read – Pratt à Manger, the fourth volume in his sequence of books about a loveable but somehow ridiculous anti-hero called Henry Pratt (a close cousin of Benjamin Trotter from my own Rotters’ Club, Closed Circle and Middle England). It’s by no means his best novel, but there are glorious passages, and it was a joy to immerse myself in David’s wise, generous, absurd universe again. 

Possession by Celia Fremlin

Celia Fremlin was my great discovery of last year. I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is a voracious reader of vintage psychological thrillers, and she tipped me off about this once-forgotten author who is now enjoying a revival. Her most famous novel is her first – The Hours Before Dawn – but the one I enjoyed most is this shocker from the early 1970s, which has the feel of a Hammer thriller from the same period, but also works as a black comedy about the horrors of bringing up teenage children.

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

This beautiful novel, one of the biggest French bestsellers of the last few years, traces twenty-four hours in the life of a human heart. A young surfer dies in a car accident. A few hours later, his heart is being helicoptered to Paris and transplanted into the body of a very different person. A routine happening which is nonetheless miraculous, and in the telling of which de Kerangal discovers a whole new rich and vibrant vocabulary of medical procedure.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

One of the many things I like about attending international festivals is that you come across writers whose work you might otherwise never encounter. I met Jenny Zhang at a festival in Auxerre last summer, and having discovered how witty, subversive and smart she was in person, it was no surprise to find these qualities evident in her writing as well. These stories of the Chinese immigrant experience in 1990s New York are long, discursive and (like so much of my favourite writing) comical and disturbing in equal measure.

This Green and Pleasant Land, by Ayisha Malik

Malik was another of last year’s standout discoveries for me. A little dangerous, perhaps, for me to pick up a novel described on its Amazon page as ‘perfect for fans of Middle England’, but I soon discovered that Malik’s writing reaches places mine never could: she writes about the Muslim experience of living in England from the inside, and in this novel constructs a sublimely witty and touching story about a middle-class Muslim, Bilal Hisham, who is charged by his dying mother with the task of building a mosque in their picture-perfect rural English village. It has an Ealing comedy vibe to it, but is of course utterly contemporary, offering many clear-eyed perspectives on the fractured, mutually-incomprehending country we have somehow managed to create for ourselves. 

Jonathan Coe's reading list

Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020


Middle England by Jonathan Coe is out now. 


  • Middle England


    'The book everyone is talking about' The Times

    'A comedy for our times' Guardian

    The country is changing and, up and down the land, cracks are appearing - within families and between generations. In the Midlands Benjamin Trotter tries to help his aged father navigate a Britain that seems to have forgotten he exists, while in London his friend Doug doesn't understand why his teenage daughter is eternally enraged. Meanwhile, newlyweds Sophie and Ian can find nothing to agree on except the fact that their marriage is on the rocks . . .


    'Coe's back with a bang. Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need' Daily Telegraph

    'A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis' Financial Times, Books of the Year

    'Very funny. Coe - a writer of uncommon decency - reminds us that the way out of this mess is through moderation, through compromise, through that age-old English ability to laugh at ourselves' Observer

  • Buy the book

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