9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Short and sweet with a leavening of sour,
This review is from: Expo 58 (Hardcover)
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It's 1958 and Thomas Foley has been working in the Central Office of Information since the age of 18 in 1944 (which raises the question of why he wasn't called up for military service). He's a quiet man, so quiet that his colleagues affect to believe that he has taken a vow of silence. He's also handsome, while not having the least idea what to do with his good looks, although he is married to Sylvia with a baby girl.
He spends his time making the sort of COI films that we now find so hilarious, warning people not to sneeze over others and to look both ways before crossing the road, until the startling day when he's told he's to go to Brussels for Expo 58. The centrepiece of the British exhibition is to be a 'typical English pub' called The Britannia and as Thomas's mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub (both of which sad facts earn him the commiserations of his public-school superiors in a very amusing passage) he is the obvious choice.
It's up to Thomas whether he takes Sylvia and the baby with him and he's starting to feel neglected by his wife in favour of his newborn daughter, like so many men. Preparing to set out for Brussels alone, he finds himself an object of interest for a couple of cartoon British spies. Meanwhile, the rather creepy man who lives next door with his invalid sister is keen to keep an eye on Sylvia while he's away.
After 'What a Carve up' in the 80s and 'The Rotters' Club' in the 70s, Coe has gone even further back in time and exposes the sad underbelly of the Cold War world with the lightness of touch which one expects of him. It's a useful reminder of how dismal the 1950s were, and don't let anyone tell you that they were some sort of golden age: Thomas, rather than being put up in a posh hotel as he would be nowadays, is dumped in something resembling a holiday camp, sharing a room with a stranger. Thomas is a very likeable character -- an innocent bumbling through the unreal world created on the outskirts of Brussels, barely understanding what is real and what is fake.
At less than 270 pages, the novel won't detain you long and it's a rollicking good read, funny with just the right leavening of sadness. A surprising amount happens for such a short book and it left me with much to think about.