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- A Novel in Seven Occasions
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B+ : enjoyable impressions-of-a-nation novel across seventy-plus years
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally very positive
From the Reviews:
- "Parts of Bournville feel episodic, and the cast is so large that not every character can make an impression. However, these flaws are outweighed by the book’s many delights, particularly its involving storylines, comic set pieces and astute analysis. (...) This is a novel about people and place. Entertaining and often poignant, it presents a captivating portrait of how Britons lived then and the way they live now." - The Economist
- "Bournville’s neatly plotted sections move back and forth through the years and serve to measure Britain’s limited capacity for self-knowledge: a deficit that Coe treats with the same rueful affection with which he draws his characters. (...) Class, social mobility, politics, multiculturalism, nationalism, sexuality, family, community -- the changing face of Birmingham, of work, of Britain and its seemingly inevitable path to Brexit is documented by Coe without sensation or sentiment." - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times
- "(T)he loving, funny, clear-sighted and ruminative examination of recent British history (.....) As ever, prizing clarity over verbal fireworks, Coe’s writing draws the reader into the family dramas as they unfold over the decades. He has the great gift of combining plausible and engaging human stories with a deeper structural pattern that gives the book its heft. (...) Bittersweet as the eponymous bar of plain chocolate, the book ranges over a huge span of time, includes a large cast of characters, yet never flags nor confuses. (...) The book also builds a deeper integrity out of echoes and motifs, like a piece of music." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian
- "There is an awful lot to fit in. Political upheaval and awkward class dynamics are set against Britain's obsessive relationship with the royal family and shifting attitudes towards multiculturalism and gay rights. But underpinning it all is the uneasy (often unspoken) debate raging over what it means to be British -- or, perhaps more accurately, English." - Rachel Cunliffe, New Statesman
- "It’s difficult (but not impossible) to draw a line between the complex energy of Coe’s early work and these gentler, more sedate later novels. You get the sense of an author more at ease with himself, one better able to channel his anger and frustration at the direction his country has taken, as well as his abiding love for it, into prose of enduring beauty, into characters who come to glorious, redemptive life on the page." - Alex Preston, The Observer
- "(A)n affectionate work of social history in fictional form, tracking four generations of a West Midlands family whose dreams, successes, misadventures and divisions reflect the shifting contours of postwar Britain. (...) Coe dwells on seven key events. Each is seen obliquely, and each provides an opportunity, laced with irony, to sample the country’s mood. (...) His pleasant sense of the absurd never recedes from view, and for all the novel’s satirical tang and historical sweep, it’s at root a tender portrait of apparently simple folk trying to fathom the mystery of their own personalities." - Henry Hitchings, The Spectator
- "At the psychological level, Bournville is about the things that anchor us in an ever-changing world. (...) Largely unmitigated by mirth, the novel’s quiet earnestness means it must stand or fall by the intelligence and subtlety of its insights into people and politics. These are for the most part distinctly anodyne, amounting to little more than a melange of clichés, truisms and received wisdom. The result is a work of modest merits: neatly crafted and intermittently absorbing, but lacking in fizz or flavour." - Houman Barekat, The Telegraph
- "Bournville is a decades-trotting trigenerational saga, and there is satisfaction inherent in following one group of characters over seventy-five years. The plotting is thoughtful and well executed. Coe’s narrative style is best described as pragmatic. (...) Coe has answered the question he set himself. He has ruled his margins with care and kept his handwriting tidy. But the resulting homework feels a bit too much like … well, homework." - Claire Lowdon, Times Literary Supplement
- "„Middlebrow“, im allerbesten Sinne, kann man Coes Romane wohl nennen. Er erzählt zugänglich, unprätentiös -- wäre es nicht so abgegriffen, könnte man von „bodenständig“ sprechen, so bodenständig wie das Personal seiner Romane. (...) Coe schafft es im stroboskopischen Blick auf all das, etwas sehr Wichtiges greifbar zu machen, das wir sonst vergessen hätten: Die eine große Geschichte, die sich Nationen über sich selbst erzählen, die gibt es nicht." - Maden Gladić, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
After a Prologue set in March, 2020, just as the Covid lockdowns begin, Bournville jumps back to VE Day.
Bournville is presented as A Novel in Seven Occasions, each of the seven sections set around a significant event that was the talk of the nation -- Great Britain -- at the time.
Four of the occasions are monarchy-related, from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the funeral of Princess Diana, while the novel is bookended by VE day and the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, coming full circle (also with the Prologue); the other one is the 1966 World Cup final.
It's a clever way of presenting snapshots of the state -- in its broadest senses -- of the nation across more than seven decades, adeptly handled by Coe in that the events are mostly somewhat in the background and that his close-ups are of day-to-day (family) life during these different times.
Many members of the Lamb family figure prominently and we follow quite a few life-stories, but the anchoring figure is Mary Lamb -- "based closely", Coe admits, on his own mother (while he claims there is no connection between his and the rest of the Lamb family).
Unlike most such family sagas, Coe's seven-occasion timeline means that the novel often doesn't cover what are generally significant events in the lives of the characters: from one section to the next, for example, we find family members married or now with kids, while the actual weddings and births happen off-screen.
Rather than a continuum, we dip into their lives -- an effective way of presenting the material.
The title of the novel refers to the town that candy-manufacturer Cadbury built (the Hershey, Pennsylvania, of the UK ...):
The name of a village not just founded upon, and devoted to, but actually dreamed into being by chocolate.
Mary grows up in Bournville, and while it is not the only significant locale in the novel -- from unavoidable London to several scenes set in Wales, the novel does more than just visit much of the UK -- it plays a prominent role, reflecting also changing Britain, with the house Mary grew up in in entirely new hands at the novel's end, and the Cadbury factory already becoming more tourist attraction -- with Cadbury World -- than chocolate-producing-center.
Bournville is also a bit conveniently out of the way and behind at least the most cosmopolitan times: in 1966: "One hundred miles away London, apparently, is swinging. Bournville ? Not so much"; Coe does London well, too, but he's particularly good at capturing that -- as the title of a previous novel had it -- 'Middle England' (as well as, here, also out of the way Wales).)
Brexit also looms large over much of the novel, as even long before it happens British tensions with and in the EEC/EU and national pride in how they do things play a role (manifesting it also in the German-English differences and rivalry that crops up several times).
Among the amusing stories is that of the long-running 'Chocolate War', as what the British call chocolate often includes non-cocoa vegetable fats (e.g. the Cadbury Bournville) and numerous members of the EEC sensibly did not want an adulterated product of that sort to be sold as chocolate in their home markets; one of Mary's sons worked for Cadbury as a lobbyist in Brussels, and Coe has good fun having him deal with that peculiar bureaucracy.
(It's also one of the places that allows him to bring in the recurring figure of Boris Johnson, a kind of clown in the background in several episodes.)
Paul Trotter -- familiar from several of Coe's other novels -- makes an appearance, and notes:
"I can't say I go in much for family history," said Paul.
"We look back too much in this country, fixated on the past, that's the source of all our troubles.
Some characters are more stuck in the past than others, and have more difficulty adapting to the changing world -- notably the man Mary marries, Geoffrey, a "rather cerebral Classics graduate" who becomes a bank manager.
Among the novel's most powerful episodes is the one where he arranges to go to the latest James Bond movie with Martin, one of his sons, -- a family tradition, when each new one comes out -- only to use the occasion as a horribly misguided attempt to separate Martin from his girlfriend, Bridget (the issue, for him, with Bridget being that, as Mary's mother says upon first seeing a photograph of her: "Goodness, she's as black as the ace of spades").
Another son, Peter, takes ages before he can fully accept, and act on the fact, that he is homosexual.
If Peter does find happiness, Bridget -- though otherwise happily married -- never gets the acceptance from too many of the members of the family that she deserves.
When Mary and Geoffrey get engaged, Geoffrey still feels some anxiety, knowing: "he would never quite feel sure of her until the vows were spoken and the wedding ring was on her finger", and she does, in fact, have another suitor; this possibility of how everything could have been different in just slightly different circumstances also hangs nicely over the novel.
(So also, one character, late on, comes to find: "Everything he had assumed [...], all those years ago, was wrong. Everything".)
The novel closes with Covid keeping everyone apart, which perhaps still sits and hits too close to home to be entirely satisfactorily fictionally treated -- but then bringing a novel such as this, covering such a long time and with a large cast of characters, to a close was always going to be difficult.
Coe does his ending well enough, but much of it does feel more strained than the easier-flowing other parts of the novel.
In a concluding Author's Note Coe explains that:
This novel is intended to stand alone, but is also part of a loosely connected series of books I've been writing for some years under the general title of Unrest.
With it's overlap with these novels, as well as others by Coe, Bournville is another piece of the large tapestry presenting modern Britain that Coe's work can be seen as, and certainly a solid and entertaining one.
It's a consistently good read, and a neat modern-Britain-survey.
(There are a lot of characters to keep track of: Coe helpfully points to the family tree included with the French edition; US and UK publishers should follow suit .....)
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2023
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Other books by Jonathan Coe under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities.
He is the author of several novels.
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© 2023 the complete review
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