Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! is an all-time favourite but I didn’t enjoy The Rotters’ Club. So I stopped keeping up with his output. However, when a title direct relates to that all-time classic vintage (now I wonder why I’d say that), how could I resist?
One thing contemporary authors of books set in the 50’s seem to agree on is the need for a device to make the decade seem less humdrum and mundane. Both Sara Sheridan and James Runcie have created a detective series – something that allows plot to add colour to the background. Coe chose the World Fair of 1958 for similar reasons. Initially beguiled by the Atonium, a building created especially for the fair, and the only thing that remains standing, he painstakingly researched the exhibition and recreated it in these pages. Then he sent his innocent abroad off for the adventure of a lifetime.
Readers of The Rain Before It Falls may recognise Thomas Foley who is obliquely mentioned in that novel. Coe explained that he has a patchwork of novels in his head which will eventually coalesce into a picture of the 20th century and Expo ’58 is Thomas’s moment in the spotlight.
Plucked from obscurity as a minor official and the boredom of life in a distinctly unglamorous British suburbia, Thomas is sent to Brussels to keep his eye on the British exhibit – nothing other than a working pub, called The Britannia. It’s not located prominently in the exhibition village but, like all good pubs, it becomes the hub of activity in its community. Now this is the height of the Cold War and the Belgians have placed the Americans next to the Russians with the Vatican on the other side. Between Heaven and Hell, said Coe at EIBF 2013. The whole village is a simulacrum – nothing and no-one is what they seem. Apart from Thomas who takes it all at face value and ends up in hot water. It’s a bit of a romp, said Coe. I deliberately played it for laughs.
And played it well, I might add. I had a good giggle. Turns out I was laughing at actual historical fact in places. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction and when were corn-plasters so hysterical? Yet on another level, this is a political allegory. At one point Thomas is faced with a romantic dilemma. That dilemma represented the choices Britain needed to make at the end of the 50’s … as well as the choices and alliances that need to be considered today. Which choice did Foley make? The wrong one, said Coe. You’ll have to read the novel to find out just what he means.