Jonathan Coe

Viking, £20



When, in 1879, the Cadbury family deliberated over the name for the village that would house their factory and workers, they chose something that evoked its location: the Bourn river on the rural outskirts of Birmingham. But they also wanted to hint at the refinement of Europe since, to their chagrin, Swiss, French and Belgian chocolate was acknowledged as infinitely superior to anything England could produce.

So it was that the Quaker business, begun in 1824, established a comfortable, self-contained community called Bourneville: “The name of a village not just founded upon, and devoted to, but actually dreamed into being by chocolate,” as Jonathan Coe writes. This thriving, alcohol-free village, forms the beating heart of Jonathan Coe’s latest droll foray into the decades since the second world war, out of which modern Britain has been forged.

In Middle England, one of his most recent works, Coe tackled Brexit and its many woes, as refracted through the personal lives of a diverse group of Midlanders, some of them familiar from earlier novels such as The Rotters’ Club. For this crew, politics, like football, was not a matter of life and death, it was much, much more important than that.

The same ethos suffuses Bourneville. Subtitled ‘A Novel in Seven Occasions’, and bookended by the pandemic, it is structured around pivotal British events, encompassing VE Day, the Queen’s coronation, the wedding and death of Princess Diana, and so on.

For Mary Lamb, PE teacher and mother of three, who is the core of the book, global upheavals happen on the fringes of her life, yet impact significantly upon it in ways she barely registers. But for Coe himself, even more than for Mary, what she lives through is very personal indeed.

While much of the novel is pure fiction, the lively Mary is based on his mother, Janet Coe, who died during the pandemic. Mary, he writes, had an enviable and sometimes maddening “ability to live as she drove: quickly and decisively, with barely a glance in the rear view mirror”. He makes no attempt to disguise his anguish at not being allowed to be with her at the end. As he says in his author’s note: “Almost two years after the event, it still saddens and angers me that my mother died alone, without pain relief, and that members of her family were allowed no personal contact with her as it happened. But then, like thousands of families up and down the country – and unlike the occupiers of number 10 Downing Street at the time – we were following the rules.”

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson gets several kickings in the course of this tale. When Martin, one of Mary’s sons, who works for Cadbury’s, is deputed to Brussels, to fight the comical-sounding chocolate war against the EEC, he finds the shambolic figure of Johnson is already making an impression as a journalist. As a French MEP comments, “making people dislike the European Union is one thing, but making them laugh at it, making them see it as a joke… well, that is a very powerful line of attack… watch out for this fellow. He has the potential to cause great trouble.”

While there is a great deal more to Bourneville than Coe’s wrath, it is this that speaks most loudly. Elsewhere, there is a creakingly schematic plot, designed to explain, if possible, why the country that in the late seventies was go-ahead and inventive, has ended up where it is today, voting for Brexit and Boris Johnson.

Readable though it is, there’s a sense that Coe is going through the motions; some of his humour is heavy-handed, as if he’s winking at an audience. As when Mary, as a young woman, confides to her diary that she went to see The Mousetrap: “I’m glad I saw it when I did because I imagine it will be closing before very long.”; or when, in later life, she talks about her first experience of a book festival: “It’s a bit of a strange idea – authors come along and they read bits of their books out loud to the audience and then afterwards they sign them. I don’t really know who that’s supposed to appeal to…”

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the structure, which proves less a framing mechanism than a straitjacket. Coe moves between decades via the increasingly repetitive medium of friends and family gathering around the wireless, or the television, to tune into the antics of the royals. In doing so, the characters’ standpoints on the big issues of the day are aired: for or against the monarchy, pro or anti Europe, in support of the Conservatives or Labour, or, in the case of Martin’s Scottish girlfriend, who is black, their attitudes to race.

Changing décor, diet and lifestyles are carefully described. Personality is revealed by people’s cars or where they choose to live: sensible Martin drives a 1976 Austin Allegro in avocado green; years later his flashy, Brexiteer brother Jack goes around in a black SUV. One lives within his means, the other proposes that he and his wife cash in all their savings to splurge on a mansion. “Yeah, let’s do it,” she says, drying her tears after watching Princess Diana’s funeral, “It’s what she would have wanted.” Mary’s youngest son, Peter, meanwhile, is a musician, a dreamer, and ultimately discovers he is gay.

Coe offers a vivid if shallow snapshot of a country evolving from post-war austerity to the luxury of the late 20th century, and beyond; from early TVs, whose image wobbles whenever the kettle boils, to tablets whose camera angle Mary can never fathom, meaning her children spend lockdown conversations talking to the top of her head.

There are moments of sharp comedy as well as poignancy, and yet as a whole Bourneville feels formulaic. Because of its episodic nature and the ground it needs to cover, conversations are didactic, with Coe’s cast emblematic of viewpoints and issues rather than rounded individuals. When plot strands are neatly tied up, it seals the impression of too controlling an authorial hand. In the end, perhaps it’s fitting that a story that revolves around moments of televised national drama feels almost as if it’s a soap opera – much like the House of Windsor, which plays a starring role.