The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe

After Maxwell Sim's wife left him he had some kind of nervous breakdown which meant he was off work for several months. He then picks up a job working as a salesman for a toothbrush manufacturer, and as part of a promotional event, is dispatched to northern Scotland. On his way there, he finds himself identifying more and more with Donald Crowhurst, the doomed yachtsman whose story he has been obsessing over.

I really wanted to like this book, and bits of it were really good. But it was a little bit patchy. There were some episodes which were very funny - e.g. when Maxwell went to a dinner party, and was having a discussion with a high-powered investment banker about why his company wanted to recruit top physics graduates ("to design cash dispensers?"). And the section where he met his teenage daughter and took her out for a rather awkward meal: her sullenness being replaced by animation while she texts on her mobile, and then returning as soon as the mobile is put away. The stuff about his relationship with his wife was good too.

And I liked the idea of the Donald Crowhurst link, which reminded me a bit of the Yuri Gargarin influence in What a Carve Up! but it didn't really seem to work quite as well.

There were also a few Perrin references, including a Martin Wellbourne, a Tony Harris-Jones and a David Webster, and a Miss Erith. Actually, I think that it would have been better to leave it with just the first one; the Tony/David one felt a bit strained.

The main story is told by Maxwell himself, who is a bit of an unreliable narrator in that he doesn't realise how dull and boring he is, which is quite effective in a sort of uncomfortable way.

But as well as the main narrative, there were some extra bits that felt a little bit pasted in (they reminded me a bit of the episode in The Rotters' Club where the family has a holiday in Sweden). As well as the story of Crowhurst, there was a section containing a short story by Maxwell's wife, a section of diary from one of his childhood friends, and a memoir by his father. These were relevant to the story, but felt a little bit like they made it lose some momentum.

The worst thing though, was the ending of the book, which I'm not alone in disliking (based on Amazon reviews). It was as near as you can get to "and then I woke up", and really spoiled the book.

So mixed feelings really: had some very good writing in, and I would read it again, but ultimately dissatisfying.

Completed : 17-Jun-2011

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