Friday, September 27, 2013

'Expo 58' by Jonathan Coe

27 September 2013

Jonathan Coe obviously has a fascination with the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (reviewed here in December 2005). Honegger's symphonies feature in Coe's novel ‘The Closed Circle’ and 'Pastoral d'ete' by Honegger provides the backdrop to a key scene in 'Expo 58', the latest novel by Jonathan Coe, which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt). The 1958 World's Fair in Brussels was one of the first major international gatherings after the end of the Second World War and the exposition, in the shadow of the gleaming new Atomium, provided both an opportunity for optimism about the rebuilding of international relations but also a focus for growing concerns about the development of atomic weapons and the increasing menace of the Cold War. Coe places into this setting a naïve Englishman abroad in the shape of Thomas Foley – a junior clerk from the Central Office of Information, recently married and with a baby daughter – who is sent to work at the Expo for six months. 'Expo 58' is a beautifully constructed comic novel which displays many of Coe's trademark elements but also feels remarkably like a David Lodge book. The civil servant being drawn into a world of international espionage also reminded me of Ian McEwan's 'Sweet Tooth' (reviewed here in January 2013). Jonathan Coe constructs some delicious comic moments as well as a host of easily missed throw-away gags. But he also manages to inject pathos – often between the lines. So much is implied by what characters don't say to each other: the chapter of letters between Foley and his wife is beautifully done. The novel concludes with some cleverly believable revelations but I could have done with a few more twists. Like all good novels I didn't want it to end.



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