This week, Margaret Thatcher died at the age of 87. England’s first female prime minister defined the nation for the duration of the eighties, giving rise to a newly privatized economy, as well as a large, vocal subculture of people whose identity depended on their opposition to her politics. Here are three novels that will give you a taste of the era.
What a Carve Up!
By Jonathan Coe
Jacobean tragedy and good old English farce wrapped up in social satire. You don’t want to be in the Winshaw Family, you really don’t. They’re all vile and meet vile ends. This novel explores the way Britain was sold off to selfish special interest groups. Warns Mortimer Winshaw of his family: “They’re the meanest, greediest, cruellest bunch of backstabbing, penny-pinching bastards who ever crawled across the face of the Earth. And I include my own offspring in that statement.” It all ends badly and hilariously.
The Line of Beauty
By Alan Hollinghurst
Nick Guest has a first in English from Oxford and aspirations of leaving the middle classes behind. Published in 2004 but set in the mid-1980s, the novel follows him to London, where he stays with the obscenely rich Feddens, who overlook his rampant gay antics because he stabilizes their mad daughter. Nick personifies Thatcherism and the Iron Lady cameos in a mesmerizing party scene. AIDS overshadows the ending as he spectacularly overstays his welcome.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾
By Sue Townsend
The first in a hilarious series that ends with Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years, these diaries say as much about 1980s suburbia as Pepys did for 1660s London. A geek, like me, Adrian dreams of writing a great work. “Now I know I am an intellectual … It all adds up. A bad home, poor diet, not liking punk. I think I will join the library and see what happens.” He obsesses, as we all did, about the progress of puberty. He’s ashamed of his leftie mother. In the “greed is good” era, he considers investing his pocket money. City traders are snorting cocaine but the closest Adrian gets is glue (“nothing spiritual happened but my nose stuck to the model aeroplane”).
Damian Barr, author of the memoir Maggie and Me, knows acutely the ambivalence that greeted the Iron Lady’s passing: As a young boy, he idolized her as an illicit gay icon, even as his family chafed under her rule.