Few contemporary writers can make a success of the state of the nation novel: Jonathan Coe is one of them. Past works have confronted the sordid venality of Thatcherism (What A Carve Up!), the social unrest of the 1970s (The Rotters’ Club), the disruptive dynamism of the New Labour era (The Closed Circle), austerity under David Cameron and George Osborne (Number 11), and, most recently, the fracturing impact of the Brexit referendum (Middle England) – all tackled with more than a hint of satire.
His new novel, Bournville, has a wider scope than any of its predecessors. It charts 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 centres the narrative on one family (distantly related to the Trotters of his previous series) based in one place (the vicinity of the eponymous chocolate factory on the outskirts of Birmingham). Mary Lamb is an 11-year-old schoolgirl when the book begins and an 86-year-old great-grandmother when it ends. Her 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 mid-lockdown with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
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.
It’s a question that grips Coe’s characters, raised in the shadow of Winston Churchill and Hitler. As a distant German cousin tells the family shortly before their football teams face each other in the 1966 World Cup final: “Perhaps the danger of winning a war is that it gives you a sense of triumph and achievement – quite rightly – which makes you think you can afford to take things easy for a while.” Half a century later, Mary’s granddaughter is challenged in Austria about the UK’s decision to leave the EU and explains: “I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a typical English person.”
A range of answers to the English question are offered in the form of Mary’s three sons. There’s arrogantly patriotic Jack who as a child draws Hitler moustaches on pictures of German footballers and later becomes a bombastic supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Brexit; the sensitive musician, Peter, who could easily be classed as part of the metropolitan “wokerati” today; and pragmatic Martin, who ends up in Brussels fighting in the “chocolate war” – a decades-long row over the right to sell British-made chocolate in the EU.
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It’s obvious where Coe’s own (anti-Tory, pro-European) political sensibilities lie, but an adept satirist knows how to expose contradictions and absurdities subtly. No character escapes some gentle mockery: even Mary herself, Bournville’s heroine, is pressed on her own unthinking bigotry and refusal to call out her husband for his unrepentant racism. And while Boris Johnson (only ever referred to – with incredulous horror – by his first name) skitters in and out of the story as a running joke, the ridicule of Britain’s former prime minister is less pointed than one might expect.
Where the rage does come through is not in the politics of Britishness or Brexit, but in the final section, which deals with the pandemic. The cruelty of the stringent and sometimes illogical Covid rules imposed on the people by the government is detailed with a jolting ferocity. In the epilogue, Coe briefly notes that his own mother “died alone, without pain relief” during that period and his 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 voted in the Brexit referendum.
At heart Bournville is a novel designed to make you think by making you laugh, and the seriousness of the subject matter is tempered throughout by the author’s piercing eye for the more ludicrous elements of human nature.
Jonathan Coe’s only regret must be that the book had gone to press before the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Which members of the Lamb family would have spent 48 hours in the queue to see her lying in state, and which would have sympathised with those arrested for anti-royalist activism? We may need a sequel – and, given the pace of British politics, we may need it very soon.
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Viking, 368pp, £30
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak