Bournville by Jonathan Coe

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Review by Annabel

Having read nearly everything that Coe has published and reviewing four of them for Shiny (see here), the arrival of a new title from Coe is always a delight. Many of his most-celebrated books are concerned with deciphering Englishness, particularly around the boundary between working and middle classes, stories of ordinary folk told with a social sensibility and wry wit.

Bournville has that in spades and subtitled ‘A Novel in Seven Occasions’, Coe has found a unique way to tell the story of one extended family through seventy-five years and three generations. The seven occasions run from VE day on May 8th 1945 to its 75th anniversary in 2020, with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, England’s World Cup victory, Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales, Charles and Di’s wedding, and Diana’s funeral in between. Each of these events is a landmark sending ripples through the country and forming the climax of each section of the book.

After a prologue set in 2020, which is returned to in the last section, the novel starts on the 7th of May, 1945. We’re at Sam and Doll Clarke’s house at 12 Birch Road, Bournville – the village built by the Cadbury family around the turn of the century to house their workers. Their ten-year-old daughter Mary has her piano lesson, and Doll feels obliged to ask her teacher to stay for tea. Sam is at the pub. The day after they all celebrate, you can already sense the one-upmanship between the Clarkes and their uppity neighbours, and there is an unpleasant scene when the Schmidt family, living there and naturalised for many years are called out for being German. But the war in Europe is finally over.

Moving on to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, Sam and Doll get their first television. Doll likes the cabinet, but not the eyesore of the aerial.

Personally, he couldn’t see what his wife was so upset about. True, the aerial was highly visible, but it was also a thing of beauty and modernity. Its gleaming metal and sharp angles announced to the world: yes, we live in a gracious house, but we are also New Elizabethans, coasting into the 1950s on a wave of technological change. Why did she object to that?

We mostly stay with Mary this time, now eighteen, and being courted by Geoffrey. She’s off soon to college in Dartford to study to be a PE teacher, but Geoffrey’s rival Kenneth is in London and she is persuaded by him to stay in London rather than go home to watch the Coronation – he knows a place where they’ll see the Queen going past.

However, Geoffrey won. By the mid-1960s, he is a bank manager and they have three children, Jack, Martin and their sensitive youngest, Peter. In 1966, they’ll host Geoffrey’s German relatives for the World Cup Final, leading to some more rivalries surfacing, but also an element of forgiveness.

Three years later they’ll be on holiday in Wales for the Prince of Wales’s investiture – they have the knack of being in the appropriate place or situation at the right time for each event. This is a neat device which allows Coe to make the most of the synergy he creates from this juxtaposition for some splendid set pieces.

The last section brings us to the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and Coe takes the narrative full circle, bringing us back to Bournville for a planned street party – as a former resident who was there 75 years ago, Mary, now 85, is invited only for Covid to put the kibosh on things, and the lockdown leads to tragedy for the family. That’s not quite the end of things, as Coe adds a poignant postscript to Mary’s story.

Bournville contains all of Coe’s trademark warmth, witty observation, and social comment. This time alongside that is some righteous anger, rather than his usual gentle satire, at the current government and those who broke the rules during the lockdown while denying those who lost loved ones access and funerals; his own mother, as he explains in the afterword, died alone during this period.

Bournville could have been a novel like the idyllic cottages that Cadbury’s put on their chocolate boxes in the 1950s and 1960s, but Coe has resisted for the most part, giving us just glimpses of witty twee now and then. Instead, after the new beginning that VE Day brought, he celebrates progress and inclusion as the years go by yet doesn’t shy aware from historical difficulties inherited from the war and the end of Empire. One of his best.

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Annabel is co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books. Her personal blog is AnnaBookBel.

Jonathan Coe, Bournville (Viking, 2022). 978-0241517383, 353pp., hardback.

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3 comments

  1. I’ve never read Coe, Annabel, but I must admit to liking the sound of this a lot!

  2. Thanks for the review. I didn’t know about this novel (doesn’t get much press here) and I’m a fan.

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