The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

I love Jonathan Coe. Have I mentioned that before? If I haven't, I'm amazed, because I generally mention it quite a lot. However, whenever he writes a new book I approach it with trepidation in case I'm disappointed, because even my favourite writers are capable of going off the boil. See Chuck Palahniuk, for instance, who has written some truly brilliant novels but hasn't really managed to turn out anything decent since Diary. So I started reading The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim feeling slightly nervous.

My fears were unfounded. I loved it.

Jonathan Coe seems to specialise in protagonists who are hapless, floundering their way through their circumstances with only half the information they need to make sense of them. Maxwell Sim is one of these characters: a lonely, dull, mediocre man, he is alone in middle-age after the departure of his wife and his distant teenage daughter. His mother is dead; his relationship with his eccentric father isn't so much dysfunctional as barely existent. There's no one problem he's seeking to solve, exactly, no one mystery he's seeking to unravel as he drives from the home counties to Shetland in order to sell environmentally-friendly toothbrushes from a company Prius. It's more a case of mysteries being solved for him through a series of explanations coming his way by chance. Short stories written by his ex-wife, a psychology essay by an old friend, a bin-bag full of postcards and a memoir in a faded ringbinder from his father's abandoned flat all help Maxwell and the reader start to piece together the story of his misfortune. Memories of awkward incidents, confused images of childhood holidays and misinterpreted events, abound, and are gradually clarified and reinvented as we find the clues to Maxwell's secrets (secrets even he doesn't seem to know he has).

Some people might find Maxwell hard to like. He's the sort of man who bores strangers seated next to him on planes. Hopeless at reading people's intentions and desperately insecure, he's scared of change - he likes chain restaurants, motorway service stations and the reassuringly bland advice of his sat-nav. But for all his faults, he's essentially a nice man, trying to do his best. There's a bit of Maxwell in all of us. If there's not a bit of Maxwell in you, you are probably an insufferably over-confident twat.

Like the hero of one of Jonathan Coe's previous novels, What A Carve-up, in which the hero is haunted by an obsession with Yuri Gagarin, Maxwell Sim becomes fascinated by yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who faked the log-book for a round-the-world yacht race and went slowly mad in the process. Maxwell's own journey isn't on the scale of Crowhurst's, but for him, it has the same significance, and his gradual breakdown is inevitable.

Also inevitable, perhaps, is the novel's end, when you really think about it. But that doesn't make it any less gobsmacking. Let's just say that it's wholly unexpected, and yet entirely logical.

In short, another outstanding book from Jonathan Coe. Can't wait for the next one.


  1. Ooh - somehow I'd missed this one - I shall point my Kindle in its general direction. I loved What a Carve-up and the Ben Trotter books, and The Rain Before it Falls was fantastic.

  2. I really enjoyed it, as you can no doubt tell from my glowing review. The House Of Sleep is great too, if you haven't read that one.


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