Cover image for Bourneville by Jonathan CoeI’ve not had much success with Jonathan Coe’s recent novels. Despite winning the Costa Novel Award, Middle England hit a low point for me but I liked the sound of Bournville which tells the story of Britain from V. E. Day in 1945 to its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2020 through one extended family who begin their lives in Bournville, a name still synonymous with chocolate for many.

Geoffrey had not cared for the atmosphere of the immediate post-war years: dangerous forces – rationalism, inclusiveness, egalitarianism – seemed to have been unleashed by the war, and threatened to shake the foundations of the old order. 

Mary Clarke is ten on V. E. Day, living with her parents at No 12 Birch Road in Bournville, the village built by the Cadbury family for their workers at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her parents think of themselves as socialists while the Lambs, their neighbours, tend the other way. Mary is an outgoing girl, keen on sport and a talented pianist. Eight years later, her family has bought a television in time for the Coronation ensuring a full house of friends, family, and neighbours. Mary will be shortly heading for Dartford to train as a PE teacher leaving behind her boyfriend Geoffrey Lamb, destined to become a bank manager despite his Classics degree. Thirteen years pass before, Mary and Geoffrey welcome his German relatives, visiting the U.K. for the World Cup the final of which is watched on the family TV, annoying the youngest who wants to listen to music. The family are on holiday in Wales shortly before the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, twelve years before the royal wedding which will transfix the nation with its TV coverage, yet again. This time it’ll be seen by the Lambs on their son Martin’s TV in the house he’s recently moved into with his girlfriend, little knowing that sixteen years later, in 1997, Diana’s funeral will see many in the country in the grips of a grief at which others are astonished. Twenty-three years later, Britain is a very different place, the planned commemoration of V. E. Day muted by the pandemic that has resulted in the enforcement of previously unthinkable restrictions which will see the Lambs facing their own particular sadness.

We look back too much in this country: fixated on the past, that’s the source of all our troubles. 

Telling the nation’s story through one family, structuring it around seven occasions that apparently united it, is a clever idea and Coe executes it well. Bournville makes the political personal through the Clarkes and their often opposing views, exploring themes of Britain’s obsession with the past, not least the Second World War, xenophobia, economic and social change through their story. Divisions in the Clarke family often echo those in the country but Coe’s characters are properly three-dimensional in all their complexity. There are some enjoyable set pieces – the 1966 World Cup final is lovingly described as are the Bond films, a family favourite – and there’s humour to enjoy but this is also an elegiac book. As the touching, funny and angry author’s note makes clear this is a work of fiction but Mary is based very much on Coe’s mother who died during the pandemic, the family unable to have the funeral they would have wanted for her. A thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing novel which makes me hopeful for Coe’s next

Viking: London 9780241517383 432 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

25 thoughts on “Bournville by Jonathan Coe: ‘Everything changes, and everything remains the same’”

  1. I have a slightly mixed relationship with Coe too. But this sounds an interesting journey, almost through my own lifetime. I wasn’t born by VE Day, but an early memory is watching the coronation on a 9” screen with, apparently, most of the village crowded in as well.

    1. What a great memory! I No TV memories for me apart from going out for a walk with my mum while my dad and brother watched the ’66 World Cup final. This one sees Coe back on form, for me.

  2. I am very tempted by this one. Coe has been at some events near to me in Switzerland. My friend Michelle has interviewed him and been to lunch with him a couple of times and he has been kind and supportive (she’s a novelist). He has to keep cranking them out I suppose, but this one sounds very much up my alley. Cheers!!

    1. I think the cranking them out was what did for me with some of the more recent ones which seemed a bit tired but this one sees him back on form. Pleased to hear he’s such a nice guy, too!

  3. Sounds an interesting approach; somewhat the other way round from the Gertrude Trevelyan that Karen and Ali reviewed recently–the broader story of the nation through a family. Haven’t read Coe so far so this should be a good place to start.

  4. I used to enjoy Coe so much but like you I drifted away from his more recent offerings. The premise of this could so easily have occurred at the expense of characterisation so I’m really pleased to hear that’s not the case. Time for me to return to Coe I think!

  5. I wasn’t tempted by Middle England, but Mr Wilder and Me, with its connections to one of my favourite directors, was right up my street. Funnily enough, I think there might be a proof copy of Bournville somewhere in my pile, so I may well give it a try. The premise does sound appealing!

      1. I haven’t read anything by Jonathan Coe for years, I read some of his earlier novels and enjoyed them. This however is already high on my wishlist. I don’t live far from Bournville of course, one of the prettiest parts of Birmingham.

        1. Enjoyed this one very much. I’ve not been to Bournville but have fond memories of my partner attending a training course there and raiding the chocolate factory shop afterwards. Not sure if it’s still open.

  6. Thank you for reminding me via your comment on my review that I had this one saved up to read! You encapsulate it very well – I didn’t really get the xenophobia/racism aspect properly in my review, I think a product of doing it a good while after I read it. I’m glad it’s a return to form and I picked a good one to come back to!

    1. You’re welcome, and thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I was particularly struck by the nostalgia theme. It’s a major problem for the country, I think, fostered by the tabloids.

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