Trimming England, M.J. Nicholls’ latest work of satire, is a brilliant piece of character work. Not so much plot-based, the novel centers around one idea: “In 2021, British Prime Minister Frank Oakface elected to rid each English county of its most irritating citizen.” Those voted out by their community members receive sentences of varying lengths and are all committed to “Jersey’s one-star Hotel Diabolique,” which is French for Rubbish Hotel. Nicholls, writing to us in the introduction from the year 2023, tells us that “this work is an almanac of terror,” and he would be absolutely correct.
The introduction sets up the plot, as Nicholls has won a contest for a “FREE HOLIDAY” and finds himself amidst those imprisoned, listening to their stories. With an opening like this, I anticipated a frame narrative, but Nicholls does not revisit us in the end. I craved closure and a final bit of commentary, but to his credit, this might distract us from the amusing, frightening, and utterly ridiculous characters with whom we’ve just spent 256 pages. Nicholls, it would seem, wants to leave us reeling and sorting through our feelings without his own closing thoughts to dictate our reactions.
We are warned in the introduction that the stories are told in the prisoners’ own voices, and this choice highlights the strong characters Nicholls has crafted. As we read on, moving from county to county, we are thrust headlong into the character’s account and I found myself marveling at Nicholls’ ability to assume new voices so wholeheartedly. From the self-indulgent neediness of “Colin” (not his real name) who craves pity for pity’s sake (his real name evokes no pity), to the blabbering ambiguities of Crocus Nightshade MP, Nicholls slips seamlessly into each character.
Of particular note is Northumberland’s account, written by the prisoner’s former wife. Craig Scowly, sentenced to nearly twenty years for “verbal uxoricide” (the killing of one’s wife), does not get to speak. Instead, we are presented with “ten pages of notepaper mailed to the editor by Mrs. Scowly’s mother,” and her mental anguish and abuse sustained is evident in the short, repetitive sentences as she retells, and relives, the humiliation brought about by her husband. At six pages, Northumberland is one of the shorter long accounts, but it shows the emotional lifting Nicholls does while he excoriates society’s simultaneous demands for perfection and lust for schadenfreude.
Trimming England does have a particular audience, and Nicholls knows it well. He tells us in the introduction that, given the anti-intellectualism movement, most of those imprisoned in Hotel Diabolique are writers and artists. Those who have given any time or effort to writing will feel the stabbing delight of being seen, since Nicholls eviscerates the writing process with regular attention throughout the novel. Whether it’s Chesire’s prisoner being told by a smarmy editor that readers want “Victor, the man, not Victor the man-made construct through whom the author is channeling fuming frustration …” or the 75-year-old woman imprisoned for her repetitive, insistent, and sometimes offensive emails to agents, Nicholls seems to say to creatives out there: I see you. I feel your pain.
For good measure, there is a teacher thrown in, and as a former high school English teacher myself, I could relate to Sarah Yurt of County Durham, and her task of “teaching five classes of net-ravaged teenagers Shakespeare and Austen in a way that made me popular and likeable” and her desire to “open a crack of trust into which I could spelunk knowledge by stealth.” Nicholls does well at satirizing the state of classrooms today, both in terms of disengaged parents and those who are more invested and see education as a high-stakes game. Suffice to say, it was eerily believable that parents would be callous and cutthroat enough that it could to lead to the shocking conclusion of Ms. Yurt’s narrative.
Trimming England is a work of satire and a bit of a warning as well. It’s best not to read the entire book in one sitting (though you easily could); while there are highs of laughter and utter absurdity, there are just as many moments of exhaustive recognition that lead to, in my case at least, staring blankly at a wall (or out at the ocean, when available) to process the plight of society. This should be a point of pride for Nicholls; Trimming England resonates with biting accuracy.
If you choose to pick up your own copy, I’d recommend reading with a highlighter in hand to mark the notables and quotables. There were many that will, either to Nicholls’ horror or delight, be typed into status bars of social media accounts or, worse still, used as a caption on a picture-sharing site. Whether or not those posting seek the same “peer-to-peer validation” of Tyrone Pouch of Bedfordshire, Nicholls excels at condensing the relatable into something easily shared, and it is certain that you will find something that crawls into your head and proceeds to live there for an extended period of time. Be it the varying definitions of a career (is a career determined by finances, success, or just stubborn persistence?), the intonation that there is “only poetry in poetry,” or adopting the “maverick stance” of letting your hunger dictate when you eat, or any of the other gems with which Nicholls has populated the novel, rest assured that you are not alone. I’ve already posted a quote on the importance of books in society, and the peer-to-peer validation is exactly as rewarding as Nicholls and Pouch promised it would be.
Trimming England is a satirical “almanac of terror,” because it is terrifying to consider a movement against intellectualism and creative individuals. It is also a cathartic experience for those of us who overthink and create our own lists of why we’d be bundled off to Hotel Diabolique. Nicholls purports to satirize England, but from my corner of South Carolina, I’d argue he does a solid job of bringing most of society to task. If his purpose in this satire is to show where his priorities lie, I’d gladly hand him the scissors for a global trim.
Trimming England, by M.J. Nicholls. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, May 2021. 256 pages. $18.00, paper.
Nora E. Webb is a high school English teacher from South Carolina working on her Master’s in English Literature. She reads, writes, and then goes to read more. Her favorite things to read are anything with a feminist or psychological slant, mythological references, or dystopian vibes (bonus points awarded for combinations of the above). In her free time, she enjoys writing, binge-watching The Good Place on repeat, listening to Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, and playing with her cat, Maybelle.