Few contemporary writers can pull off the state of the nation novel: Jonathan Coe is one of them. Past works have come up against the sordid venality of Thatcherism (What a cut!), the social unrest of the 1970s (The Rotters Club), the disruptive dynamism of the New Labor era (The closed circle), austerity under David Cameron and George Osborne (Number 11), and, more recently, the fracturing impact of the Brexit referendum (Middle England) – all approached with more than a hint of satire.
Her new novel, Bournville, has a wider reach than any of its predecessors. It traces 75 years of British history from the end of the Second World War to the Covid-19 pandemic, all in just 350 pages. To do this, Coe centers the narrative on a family (distantly related to the Trotters of his earlier series) based in one location (the vicinity of the eponymous chocolate factory on the outskirts of Birmingham). Mary Lamb is an 11-year-old schoolgirl at the start of the book and an 86-year-old great-grandmother at the end. His story, and that of the country, is told through snapshots: VE Day in 1945; the Queen’s coronation; the 1966 World Cup; the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It ends in the middle of the confinement with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
There are a lot of things to integrate. Political upheaval and awkward class dynamics are pitted against Britain’s obsessive relationship with the royal family and changing attitudes towards multiculturalism and gay rights. But all of this is underpinned by the difficult (often unspoken) debate raging over what it means to be British – or, perhaps more accurately, English.
It’s a question that grips Coe’s characters, raised in the shadow of Winston Churchill and Hitler. As a distant German cousin told the family shortly before their football teams met in the 1966 World Cup final: “Perhaps the danger of winning a war is that it gives you a sense of triumph and accomplishment – rightly so – that makes you think you can afford to relax for a while. Half a century later, Mary’s granddaughter is questioned in Austria about the UK’s decision to leave the EU and explains: “I don’t think there is a typical Englishman.”
A range of answers to the English question are offered in the form of Mary’s three sons. There’s Jack, an arrogant patriot, who as a child draws Hitler mustaches on photos of German footballers and later becomes a pompous supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Brexit; the sensitive musician Peter, who could easily be classified among today’s metropolitan “wokerati”; and the pragmatic Martin, who finds himself in Brussels fighting the “chocolate war” – a decades-long dispute over the right to sell British-made chocolate in the EU.
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It’s obvious where Coe’s own political sensibilities lie (anti-conservative, pro-European), but an adept satirist knows how to subtly expose contradictions and absurdities. No character escapes gentle mockery: even Mary herself, BournvilleThe heroine of, is pressed by her thoughtless bigotry and refusal to call her husband for his unrepentant racism. And while Boris Johnson (never referred to – with incredulous horror – by his first name) slips in and out of history like a running joke, the ridicule of the former British Prime Minister is less pointed than one might expect. expect.
Where the rage shows up is not in the politics of Britishness or Brexit, but in the last section, which deals with the pandemic. The cruelty of the strict and sometimes illogical Covid rules imposed on the people by the government is detailed with convulsive ferocity. In the epilogue, Coe briefly notes that his own mother “died alone, with no pain relief” during this time and her fury – thinly veiled as Mary’s children and grandchildren are forced to adjust to reality under Covid laws – will likely resonate regardless of how readers vote in the Brexit referendum.
In the heart Bournville is a novel designed to make you think by making you laugh, and the seriousness of the subject is tempered by the author’s keen eye for the more ridiculous elements of human nature.
Jonathan Coe’s only regret must be that the book went to press before Queen Elizabeth II died. Which members of the Lamb family would have spent 48 hours in line to see her lying in state, and who would have sympathized with those arrested for anti-royalist activism? We may need a sequel – and, given the pace of British politics, we may need one very soon.
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Viking, 368 pages, £30
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