At the end of When We Were Rich, I realise: the last time I was this melancholy after a book was when I read the ‘Rabbit’ series nearly twenty years ago. Two days later, I read an interview with Tim Lott. Lead character Frankie Blue is meant to be Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. Wow.
Is Lott Updike? I’m not sure. He plays with language, certainly, and sometimes it’s sublime. Occasionally we’re a little too aware of being set up but it doesn’t mean that we know where the author is taking us. Does Lott need to be Updike? Certainly not. This novel packs a punch either way.
What Lott does, which Updike did before him, is take a series of ordinary characters and drop them into major real-life events. In this case we follow the characters’ journey from Millennium night to the financial crash eight years later. We – or at least those of us who were adults in the period 2000-2008 – remember those events and our own reaction to them. We recognise ourselves in Lott’s characters and we are appalled, by their ordinariness and by our own.
For what really makes this book is the brilliance of the character creation. With one obvious exception, these are not particularly nice people. But Lott is careful not to obviously disapprove of them, which means that we more acutely observe each character’s actual behaviour. The characters are not consistent in their actions, which makes them more consistently authentic. And it means that they can confound our expectations. So a character whom we expect to have an inner life turns out to be shallow, and a character whom we expect to be shallow has occasional clear insights. The lead, Frankie, is in turns selfish, generous, weak and strong, brave and less than brave. Only three characters appear to have no redeeming features, and they seem to be there mainly as foils for the others.
Normally, when you can’t put a book down, it’s because you are enjoying being on an adventure with the main protagonists. What makes When We Were Rich unusual – and probably what it really shares with the Rabbit saga – is that you carry on reading despite loathing most of those described. That takes some doing.
What does When We Were Rich tell us about the 2000s? I don’t know. I think the characters tell us more about timeless human traits than about the specific decade they inherit. That isn’t to say that Lott doesn’t have the chance to make commentary about the times he describes, but I think that he does that as a narrator rather than through Frankie and company. Veronica’s dissatisfaction with life would, we know, express itself differently were it set in the 1950s or whenever, but dissatisfaction it would remain.
It would be easy to describe this book as one of a number of post-Brexit condition of England novels, but I suggest that’s the wrong call. On my to-be-read list is Jonathan Coe’s Merrie England which I suspect will meet this description more accurately. Coe describes movers and shakers grasping their zeitgeist. In contrast, Lott has us in his sights. If you’re a human being, you should make time for When We Were Rich.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.