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Fun read with an unusual premise, but not up to Coe's old standards
on 29 May 2014
I'm a big fan of Jonathan Coe's early books, What a Carve Up, and the Rotters Club/The Closed Circle. I've read his more recent releases eagerly and have tended to enjoy them but feel a bit underwhelmed, so I picked this up with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would this be back to Coe's earlier standard?
The subject of this novel is an unusual one - a 1950s low-ranking Civil Servant, and the 1958 "Expo" held in Belgium. As a modern-day Government employee, the differences and the similarities between the main character's day job and mine made me smile. The world of the 1950s was beautifully recreated, and treated with a similar mix of fond nostalgia and cool-headed scrutiny. The knowing references (such as the woman encouraged to smoke during pregnancy as it's such a stressful time) were occasionally a little heavy-handed, but generally made me giggle. Coe is one of the few genuinely literary authors who can really do humour well.
Although the world of the civil service was a broadly familiar one to me, then the Expo was something completely new. I've seen pictures of the Atomium building that formed it's centrepiece, but didn't really know what it was, and had never heard of the titular event where countries from around the world came together for the first time since WW2. And now, I feel I know everything about it, from the opening speech to the design of each pavilion. Coe certainly seems to have done his research. It was fascinating to find out about this obscure piece of history. At the same time, the themes of European integration or separation, and conflict between Russia and the US seem oddly relevant to today's world.
The plot has two main strands. In one, the main character is torn between his humdrum life at home and the glamour of the Expo, between England and Europe/America, between the past and the future, and more practically, between his suburban stay-at-home wife and a charming Expo hostess.
The other is a slightly odd spy story, which works from the premise that instead of a suave James Bond type figure, it's an ordinary lower-middle class man who gets caught up in an international plot featuring kidnappings and seductions and nuclear technology. The slightly far-fetched turn that things take manage to be oddly believable, and the main character is fundamentally likeable and relateable, despite a decisions that are questionable from the standpoint of both morals and sense. The references to Ian Fleming's books, which both the hero and the two actual spies have read but struggle to relate too were hilarious.
The worst thing about the book was the ending. No spoilers, but suddenly rushed ahead to the present day, felt unnecessary maudlin and cast a bit of a shadow over everything that had gone before. It didn't add much to the story and wasn't that clever. Coe pulled a similar "clever cop-out" ending in Maxwell Sims - give me a sad ending, give me a happy ending, do anything but skirt the issue.
To answer my opening question, I thought this books this was funny, enjoyable and a bit different. As you'd expect from the author, it was well-written and flowed nicely and it was definitely better than Maxwell Sims. Equally though, unlike some of his earlier books, which have lingered in my mind for years - both the one-liners and the profound moments - I never felt really wowwed, never thought of it as more than just a bit of easily-forgotten fun.
So it's worth a read, whether you're a fan or just like the premise and want something different. It's just not wildly memorable or up with the author's best.