I have read the odd Jonathan Coe book over the years – well, I know I read “The House of Sleep” in 1999 because my Reading Journal Index for the pre-blog years tells me so – but I’ve not engaged with his books really, even though he’s a Birmingham author who writes about the city. But when I saw his new book was set in a suburb very close to here, one I visit regularly, and whose running club members I know and like, I had to pick it up.

I actually read this in November, starting it on the plane on the way home from our holiday (I didn’t read it while in Spain for fear of getting homesick) but November’s reviews were so stuffed full of Australia, non-fiction and novellas that I couldn’t find room for it.

Jonathan Coe – “Bournville”

(25 October 2022, NetGalley)

There are certain books that tie you into the characters, get you invested in them, then twist the knife until you could sob. I remember A.S. Byatt doing that with “The Children’s Book” and Larry McMurtry doing it recently with “Some Can Whistle“. Coe certainly does it here, too.

The conceit is a simple one – take an ordinary family in a Birmingham suburb and visit and revisit them at pivotal post-war moments in England – and is here in the hands of a master, who ramps up the relationships and characters, starting with a woman musician and her playing partner experiencing the beginning of the Covid lockdowns in Europe as they try to do a concert tour and returning to them post-pandemic in a heart-wrenching epilogue. In between, we’re moved expertly through VE Day, the Coronation and the World Cup Final to Princess Diana’s funeral, and the 75th anniversary of VE Day, following Mary from a child to an old woman with a looming health condition and the spreading family she engenders. There’s also an email mentioned near the start that we only read near the end, little Iris Murdochian doublings (one character reads the children’s cartoons in his paper; decades later another watches them on TV; two women stand in the doorway of one house, decades apart, hearing the noise of schoolchildren), a sub-plot that surprises and mentions of a favourite character from another set of novels, and sections of the novel are in different formats, reports or lockdown instructions: all very clever but not too clever-clever.

Of course there’s lots for me in terms of local colour – I was particularly pleased to see the little boating lake I love to run to and around mentioned, and there’s an excellent discussion in a restaurant I’ve been to about the origin of the Balti dish.

This is a state of the nation novel, as Coe loves to write – in this one we have the interplay of pro-Europeans and pushy money-makers giving a fraternal contrast – and a Europe novel – the scenes in the European Parliament hilarious and battles over chocolate naming baffling – and it’s also Coe’s Covid novel and it clearly comes from a huge anger – in the Author’s Note at the end he clarifies that it’s a tribute to – not a portrait of – his mother and that she died alone with no personal contact from her family as they followed the rules – unlike the residents of 10 Downing Street. Being a consummate storyteller and craftsperson, he – just – doesn’t allow his angry agenda to unbalance the book.

An excellent book, readable and with depth, technically adept but not offputtingly literary, and highly recommended.

Thank you to Viking for selecting me to read a copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Bournville” was published on 3 November 2022.

I have some Bookish Beck serendipities, too, remembering that I read this just after finishing Kamila Shamsie’s “Best of Friends“: there is a great description of the coming of lockdown and the atmosphere of it in both, and Boris Johnson features as a character in both!