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Bournville: From the bestselling author of Middle England

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The set up is simple but effective – a single family (based around the eponymous Cadbury’s built workers village), and part German descended is followed across seven nation-defining: VE Day; The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth; The World Cup Final; The Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales; The Wedding of Charles and Lady Diana; the Funeral of Diana; the 75th Anniversary of VE Day (which takes place in the early days of lockdown – a prologue being set in March 2020 as the virus spreads across Europe in real time).

I have previously read two of Jonathan Coe’s novels – his 1994 “What A Carve Up” and 2015 part-sequel “Number 11” – both very readable and enjoyable (if rather didactic and over-preaching to the converted) social satires drawing on English farce and (more oddly) spoof horror movies – the first novel in particular also surprisingly formally inventive. Perhaps the weakest point of the novel is that at times it can feel a little predictable – as in fact can be seen in the choice of epochal events which rather inevitably leads to fairly predictable discussions around UK/EU and German relations (which anyway are even more strongly emphasised by having a German branch to the family), and about the changing attitudes to the monarchy. There are other problems, like too many similar characters, but the ones I've listed above are the main ones. As we travel through seventy-five years of social change, from James Bond to Princess Diana, and from wartime nostalgia to the World Wide Web, one pressing question starts to emerge: will these changing times bring Mary’s family – and their country – closer together, or leave them more adrift and divided than ever before?When I lived in Brunei (Borneo), I was surprised to find just as enormous a display of Cadbury’s chocolate in SupaSave as I did in Tesco in England. The author has said in an interview that he his “heart sank” when he initially heard of Ian McEwen’s “Lessons” published just ahead of his own and covering a similar timespan and the interaction between national and personal events – before reading it and realising how different the two books are in style and approach. If Brexit has brought us little else of value, it has at least reanimated the career of the arch-Europhile.

a priori, στην πραγματικότητα) του Μπόρις, σε έναν παραδοσιακά "εργατικό" δήμο, όπου δε θα είχε καμία τύχη (κι όμως, το τόλμησε). His writing is wonderful, his stories are clever and deep, and his left-wing politics are always spot on. Coe uses some big 20th century historical moments to situate and contextualise his vivid characters. The centring of this book around royal events possibly didn’t help as they did not stand out in my memory. Working for Waterstones meant that I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of this book well before the publication date.For me a closer comparison would be to Francis Spufford’s Booker longlisted/RSL Encore Prize winning “Light Perpetual” although without the oddly redundant meta-fictional conceit, the welcome exploration of faith and the almost transcendent ending (although see below). As somebody who enjoys reading about 20th century history and loves social history, this book was a dream for me to read. Brexit (για το οποίο είναι σαφές ότι οι Βρετανοί δεν έχουν ακόμα συλλογικά κατασταλαγμένη άποψη), ενώ ένας άλλος, πολύ χαριτωμένα ερωτώμενος αν έχει κάνει ποτέ του κάτι τολμηρό αναφέρει την ένταξή του στο SDP (μετριοπαθέστερο των εργατικών της εποχής κόμμα).

We visit the Bournville family – now dispersed across the country – as they react to the death of Diana and then in May 2020, deep in the Covid crisis, with Mary self-isolating and her children and grandchildren (including Lorna) worrying about her.The news in the UK is totally saturated by these topics right now - understandably - so perhaps for me personally this was not a good moment to read a novel that featured these two themes so prominently when I am reading a novel to relax and escape from constant discussion and rumination on such topics. Feature films have been made of his novels The Dwarves of Death (as Five Seconds To Spare) and The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (as La vie très privée de Monsieur Sim). And the novel has a surprisingly strong ending also with a passage which echoes one from the start and shows the continuity of societal issues – which is a fundamental theme of the novel (and of course proven by the events since the novel was written - the overdue defenestration of Boris, another Royal death and another Royal coronation … and probably another James Bond film but I do not follow movies).

There are a few good chapters, especially those talking about Cadbury's, but I was dismayed to read in the author notes that the death of Mary Lamb in the novel was an accurate account of the passing of Coe's own mother during the Covid pandemic. It focuses foremost on Mary, who is a child during VE day, and overwhelmed by the patriotism and the joyousness of triumphing over the Germans. Thanks to Europa Editions and Netgalley for an advance copy, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The Rotter’s Club and Number 11 create a wincingly-accurate portrait of Britain through the seventies and beyond, complete with all its petty class warfare and the agonising blunders of adolescence and middle age. The story opens during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic as things as shutting down and uncertainty grows.And I did make it a point to get to the end before writing this review, just in case the novel could redeem itself before the end. As the latest in J Coe's Unrest sequence, Bournville is one of the most warm-hearted, brilliant and beguiling of his State of the Nation novels. Currently living in the West Midlands myself I was interested in a novel which featured the area so prominently, but I think the book was a bit of a letdown in that regard - the sections on the history of Bournville were interesting though.

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