Jonathan Coe’s 14th novel opens with a snapshot of recent history that will stir fresh and uncomfortable memories. As the Covid pandemic is descending on Europe in early 2020, thirtysomething Lorna, a struggling jazz musician, is on tour in Austria and Germany. Lorna’s exhilaration at gigging overseas for the first time is tempered by a growing sense that the world is menaced by something extraordinary. It is both ominous and comic. Arriving in Vienna, Lorna can barely squeeze into her host’s car beside the stockpiled toilet rolls. For the reader, there’s an additional and more worrying dramatic irony: we can see that Lorna’s overweight musical partner, Mark, will be particularly vulnerable to the virus.
In Vienna, Lorna and Mark are taken to dinner by Ludwig, the owner of a small independent record label. A jazz fan and passionate anglophile, Ludwig is struggling to figure out what has happened to a nation he once admired for its tolerance, humour and self-awareness. “And now this same generation is doing … what? Voting for Brexit and for Boris Johnson? What happened to them? … What’s going on?”
Events since 2020 have only sharpened the urgency of Ludwig’s questions. And the loving, funny, clear-sighted and ruminative examination of recent British history that follows might be considered an attempt to answer them. Bournville travels back in time from March 2020 to stage a series of tableaux in which we witness key moments in the lives of the nation and Lorna’s extended family. The successive set-piece events show this family – and Britain – changing.
Our first stop is 1945, where we meet Lorna’s grandmother, Mary, as a child, on the eve of the VE Day celebrations. Mary’s parents, Doll and Sam, live in the chocolate-manufacturing suburb of Birmingham that gives the book its title. There is warmth and humour in the portrait of lower middle-class life presented, but it’s not sanitised. A strain of xenophobia bubbles up throughout the episode and climaxes in an act of violence that will echo throughout the book.
This sets the pattern of the novel, which tracks Doll, Sam, Mary and other members of the family through six further landmarks: the 1953 coronation, the 1966 World Cup final, the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales, the 1981 royal wedding, the death of Princess Diana, and the scaled-down anniversary of VE Day in 2020.
As ever, prizing clarity over verbal fireworks, Coe’s writing draws the reader into the family dramas as they unfold over the decades. He has the great gift of combining plausible and engaging human stories with a deeper structural pattern that gives the book its heft.
We see young Mary as child and then return eight years later to find her a young woman, struggling with a romantic dilemma and then settling into motherhood. We then join her children on family holidays in Wales, follow them into adulthood and watch all their lives intersect with the larger national events. Beat by beat, we’re invested in their stories: which of her suitors will Mary choose? How will her own offspring fare? And although we know it’s going to happen all along, it’s still poignant and strange to watch young Mary gradually becoming Lorna’s elderly Gran.
Bittersweet as the eponymous bar of plain chocolate, the book ranges over a huge span of time, includes a large cast of characters, yet never flags nor confuses. It manages to squeeze in, among other things, the history of Bournville, European disputes over the labelling over chocolate, Welsh nationalism, the Festival of Britain, the launch of the Austin Metro and tensions over the European Union. As we leaf through the family album, there are touching jolts of recognition. It’s hard not to be stirred by your own memories of the events portrayed and thoughts of your own family.
Like the moving images in a zoetrope, Coe’s snapshots invite us to notice changes and continuities, track growth and decay; the strengthening of some relationships, the failure of others. There are striking reverberations along the book’s long passageways: unregarded turning points whose importance only becomes clear much later, echoes of behaviour, incidents that recur in a world that is the same but different.
As the nation changes and the racial makeup of the family alters, it’s not so much that bigotry gives way to tolerance, but that the ambiguities deepen. All along, we are reminded of the contradictory facets of the nation and of each individual character: the snobbishness that coexists with kindness, humour and narrow-mindedness, rationality and unexamined prejudices.
When one of Mary’s son’s starts dating a non-white girlfriend, his grandmother Doll is disquieted. “‘Do you treat her the same?’ Doll wanted to know. ‘I mean … do you treat her the same as you would any other girl?’” This striking line is an unsettling and plausible combination of compassion and racism.
The book also builds a deeper integrity out of echoes and motifs, like a piece of music. The phrase “all that caper”, a particular corner of a Birmingham pub, a yellow cravat, a line of Latin verse, the sound of laughter in a school playground – all set off chains of associations that ripple throughout the novel. A piece of casual homophobia will be recalled decades later by a son trying to come to terms with his sexual orientation.
Subtle, considered, but not programmatic, Coe doesn’t stick to any consistent aesthetic principle. He uses omniscient narration for some sections, first-person narration for others. There are bits in the past tense, bits in the present tense, chunks of news reports, extracts from a diary, a long reminiscence by a recurring character from one of his other novels. None of this sophistication makes the book less pleasurable – quite the reverse. It combines a welcoming accessibility with a box of clever narrative tricks.
It struck me that there is something hopefully British about the book’s flexible approach to narrative. There’s no theoretical doctrine underlying it. The decisions are made, moment by moment, on the basis of what works, what is clear, what is engaging, and what best serves the story. In the end, while the novel can’t explicitly allay Ludwig’s disquiet, its compassionate and undogmatic approach to its characters and craft embodies a set of values that give some grounds for optimism.