It’s 2019 in Sudleigh, a market town not far from the south coast.
It’s not a bad place to live, provided the new housing development doesn’t ruin it, but most residents are too caught up in their own disappointments, grudges, and sores to notice.
Former lounge musician Frank wants to pass his carpet business to his nephew Joe, killing the boy’s dream to become a chef. Sharp-elbowed phone-sex operator Heather will stop at nothing to become the manager of the golf club. Gap-year Tom is cleaning toilets but finding unexpected solace in his Chinese house-share. Miss Bennett keeps putting her house on the market when she doesn’t want to move.
Do they all know how their lives are linked? Meticulously observed, We Need to Talk offers a jigsaw puzzle of unwitting connections for the reader to assemble. The finished picture is a hyper-real, unflinchingly honest portrait of multi-jobbing, gig-economy Middle England on the eve of Covid, confirming some preconceptions while gently upsetting others.
I usually read books to escape from the often grim day to day realities of the news cycle – especially in the last couple of years. But every so often, a book catches my eye that promises an unique assessment of the ‘state of the nation’, and a glimpse into the hidden depths of our everyday existence – and We Need to Talk is definitely one such book.
Set in 2019, We Need to Talk provides a perfectly poised and intricately observed snapshot of a small English market town post-Brexit and pre-pandemic. Not far from the south coast, Sudleigh is an encapsulation of Middle England – and its residents have all the petty gripes and first-world problems that you’d expect (as well as some actual problems, which you possibly wouldn’t).
Martin has been reluctantly pressed into service to oppose the proposed housing development – much to the dissatisfaction of his wife, district councillor Bridget. Eighteen-year-old Tom has been forced to leave home by his mother’s malicious new boyfriend – and is making ends meet through cleaning jobs whilst he saves for university. Former lounge musician Frank wants to retire – and is disappointed that his nephew Josh seems less than keen to talk on the family carpet business. Newly widowed George is throwing himself into the garden that his beloved wife never got to create – much to the concern of his daughter Emma. Sheila is under pressure to put her house on the market – even though she doesn’t want to move. And Tony, creative writer and pressured academic, is finding it tough to get anyone to appreciate his latest avant-garde work, The Jazz Cats – least of all his girlfriend Lydia.
Chapter by chapter and person by person, We Need to Talk provides a meticulously observed and wickedly funny depiction of small town life in Middle England today. From the perils of the gig-economy, to the small nuances of neighbourhood life, and the deeper interpersonal connections that we make – or fail to make – with those around us. From nuisance neighbours and terrible parents, to worried daughters and spiteful colleagues, We Need to Talk has it all – and treats it all with the same wry and unflinching gaze.
Although We Need to Talk is a novel, its a novel as jigsaw puzzle and, for me, each chapter felt like a little short story all on its own. Characters do flit between chapters – it’s quite fun seeing them flitting in and out of each others lives as the book progresses – and there are some characters that we return to more than once as the book progresses, but this is really a multi-layered portrait of a community and the people within it than a novel with a singular narrative drive or character.
As such, it won’t be for everyone – the pull comes from being interested in the community, and in musing over the various ways the characters drift together and apart and what this might say about modern life in the UK today. At times, I have to admit, I did find some elements of it quite distressing – and depressing – because Jonathan Crane has done such an excellent job of capturing the petty squabbles and gossipy grudges that so often distract from the real issues that many people face. What kept me reading was the meticulous observation, the focus on individuals as part of a wider picture – and the regular moments of wicked and wry humour which punctuates the book.
Gossipy, perceptive, and darkly funny, We Need to Talk is a picture of small town life in an increasingly divided nation. Readers of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England and John Lanchester’s Capital will surely enjoy the book, as will those seeking a short, sharp ‘state of the nation’ read.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Emma Welton from DampPebbles Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 14 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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