Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe
|Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: Laugh-out-loud funny, charming and written, not only about the late 1950s, but in a way that could be from the late 1950s. Yes Minister meets Ealing Comedy meets Graham-Greene-lite and it works wonderfully.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: September 2013|
|External links: Author's website|
It's 1958 and Thomas Foley works for the British Government Central Office of Information but feels an outsider. He's ex-grammar school rather than establishment public school and his mother is Belgian (that's foreign you know) so there are definite impediments to his promotion. Thomas is therefore thrilled when chosen to oversee one of Britain's exhibits at the big, exciting international Expo in Belgium. So bring on the experience… and a little brush with espionage… and some beautiful women. (Sylvia is a little less thrilled, being his wife and all.)
If you're still waiting to meet someone who can be described as an entertaining research physicist then you haven't met Jonathan Coe. Although these days he tends to write more fiction than research papers and to demonstrate why, this is pure pull-the-curtains, put-the-cat-out entertainment.
The idea was germinated when a journalist friend of his mentioned that during Expo 58 and the height of the Cold War, the Belgians placed the American and Russian pavilions next to each other for a mischievous laugh. Add Jonathan's desire to pay homage to Hitchcock thrillers and Ealing comedies and a book was born.
Thomas Foley is a ministerial nearly-man who has weathered WWII and is settling down to married life in drab post-war England. Let off the leash in a world fair that reeks of anything but austerity, he becomes a kid in a sweetshop and it's great to watch. Ok, his morals are a little iffy but we view everything through his eyes (in third person so anyone hating first person narratives will be cheered) and therefore we drift towards his side.
We squirm with him, laugh at him (ok, so not totally on his side then) and the cast Jonathan assembled to enrich our experience as much as to hamper Thomas. Of course, as sophisticated 21st century people we can see what's going to happen and suss all the twists… or can we? We’re given a couple of obvious ones for free but others turn out a little differently to how they seem. Even if you do guess them all ahead of time (Clever Clogs!) nothing's spoilt, it's that rewarding a read.
There are some lovely well-researched 1950s touches. I guffawed at Wayne and Radford's discussion with Thomas to ascertain his 'leanings'. (Wayne and Radford are based on the detectives in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes but remind me more of a slightly sinister version of Herge's Thompson Twins.) Then there are the crisps with the salt sachets which I double checked (forgive me!) as I remembered 1960s blue twisties rather than sachets, but Jonathan's spot on: sachets came before twisties.
It's not all played for laughs though; there's some beautifully subtle polite snideness in Sylvia's letters and poignancy in the fate of the Congolese villagers who came to live in their country's exhibit. My only mild doubt is to whether Thomas's view of the African natives would be that progressive in the '50s. However, he does have a foreign mother and his views act well as a bridge of engagement connecting us so, all considered his lack of prejudice works.
If this review sways you towards this entertaining nostalgia, take some advice from one born shortly after the Expo (no connection…or so I'm told). Firstly do read it and, secondly, swallow that mouthful of coffee before you reach the English translation of that Russian toast if you value your décor.
If enjoyed this classic in the making and fancy a bit more retrospective satirical comedy, we suggest an established classic: Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie. If you prefer something more in the line of espionage, how about Spies by Michael Frayn, one of Jonathan Coe's influences?
You can read more book reviews or buy Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.