Book Review

Under Country by Jonathan Trigell

contemporary fiction on the last quarter of the 20th century

Featuring a blurb and marketing copy that promises this book to be an in-depth fictionalisation of the 1980s’ miners’ strikes (and thus pickets and union politics and clashes with the British conservative government of the day), I was surprised to find Jonathan Trigell’s brand new 2022 novel, Under Country, to instead be far more of an end-of-the-20th-century-fin-de-siècle-type, state-of-the-nation-type, bildungsroman-type novel that sits very much within the Great-American-novel-but-British tradition, set in the working class and lower middle class of the British Isles (well, England) of the quarter century predating the millennium.

Under Country has multiple third-person perspectives (though two of these only appear once each and both are in the the final 30ish pages of the novel), but the two main characters are Charlie and Blue.

The narrative begins in the 1970s with Charlie, a young miner/poacher (son of a miner/poacher, grandson of a miner/poacher, and miner/poachers all the way down), who survives a catastrophic mining accident, then – in the moments before he is pulled from the rubble – makes a deal with God (like in that song off of Stranger Things) to marry the ugliest woman in the town if a higher power permits him to survive.

Charlie does survive, Charlie does marry the ugliest woman in town and together they have a child (with heterochromia (that means his eyes are different colours, like David Bowie and (I feel like this is a fact I ingested at some point but this might be wrong) the majority of huskies)), a boy named Bluford (is that a name that exists anywhere except this novel?), who is always known as Blue.

A decade or so passes, and the (now dead) Maggie Thatcher’s psychotic government are – successfully – doing everything within their power to turn the UK into the barely functional neoliberal nightmare it remains to this day, and one of the key parts of achieving the disenfranchisement of the working classes is the protracted and terminal destruction of unionised labour forces across the country.

Trigell writes in detail about pickets, about poverty, about solidarity, about “managed decline”, about coercion and violence and scabs and the traumatic reality of living through the end of a long-established way of life (as it says in the blurb: “The mines never stopped. / Until they did.”) 

It is during one of the most fraught periods of the miner’s strike that tragedy befalls Charlie and Blue: the details and wider repercussions are kept from the reader until near the novel’s end, but whether Charlie has been erroneously labelled as a strike breaking traitor, if he’s secretly a paedophile, or if he has committed some other kind of scandalous behaviour, he ends up dead, his wife (the ugliest woman in town) slides into madness and Blue is sent to live with a foster parent in Margate.

From there, the narrative takes us around various south coast resort towns, through a moving section on the AIDS crisis, pausing in Skegness for several years while Blue works as a croupier at a local loan shark slash property speculator’s casino, before returning to the north east to his – now barely functioning – hometown, one of the many communities decimated by coal mine closures that were pushed through without any thought given to the lives of those people on the ground (and under it) who would be affected.

Thus, by the end of the novel it becomes clear what exactly Trigell meant by “under country”: he does not just mean the mine shafts that litter many parts of the UK, he instead means all of the parts that have been “left behind” (a less pejorative phrase is preferred) by the financialisation, privatisation and deliberate gutting of the industries, infrastructures and institutions that Thatcher and co began and all subsequent governments have gleefully continued.

Under Country is an expansive novel that looks at ecological destruction, the fallacy of representative democracy, the hypocrisy and violence of the state, the role of the police, international solidarity, alternative lifestyles, crime and its allure and psychological consequences, and it combines all this with a whistlestop tour of various parts of the UK whose best years are (most conspicuously) behind them.

Nicely plotted, exciting and adventure-vibey without ever becoming unbelievable or silly.

It’s a great novel, though far less focused on the miner’s strike as the blurb would have you believe!

Order Under Country direct from Merdog books!

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