Fat of the land

Jonathan Coe’s Bournville (“A novel in seven occasions”) is fortuitously timed. It is bookended by two VE Days (1945 and 2020), and four of the other “occasions” center on royal ceremonies, watched on television by the Lamb family down the generations: the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969, Charles’s wedding to Diana in 1981 and Diana’s funeral in 1997. When Coe wrote the book the Queen was still alive; reading it in the aftermath of her funeral lends this neatly plotted novel a further sense of completeness.

We begin with a short prologue. It is March 2020, the eve of the pandemic. Lorna, a double bass player, is touring in Austria and Germany. Over post-gig schnitzel, the owner of the record label, Ludwig, quizzes Lorna and her bandmate about their compatriots:

I first came to London in 1977, the height of punk … I felt there was an energy and inventiveness in this place that you didn’t encounter anywhere else in Europe, and all done without self-importance, with this extraordinary irony that is so unique to the Brits. And now this same generation is doing … what? Voting for Brexit, and for Boris Johnson? What happened to them?

This is the question Bournville sets out to answer. It is familiar territory for Coe. His comic elegy The Rotters’ Club (2001) sought to bottle the spirit of the 1970s, as experienced by a group of direct-grant grammar schoolboys from Birmingham. In the richly observed Middle England (2019), which won a Costa prize, Coe returned to the cast of The Rotters’ Club to take a long look at Brexit Britain.

In Bournville chocolate is the medium through which we view Britain’s shifting, fractious relationship with the EU. The narrative proper begins in 1945. Mary – who will become Lorna’s grandmother – is ten and living in with her parents in Bournville model village. The village was built by the Quaker Cadbury family for their employees, and named for the local brook. Why not Bournbrook? “There lurked a residual sense of the inferiority of the native product, compared to its Continental rivals.” “Ville”, it was thought, would lend a touch of European sophistication.

We meet Mary on VE Day. At the celebratory bonfire an elderly German man, resident in the UK since the 1890s, is attacked by a violent teenager. The narrative then jumps to the 1950s. Mary is living in London, training to be a PE teacher. In 1953 she watches the coronation with Kenneth, a nascent republican who is critical of romantic attitudes to the war: “There’s an idea that some people like to have … that everybody believed the real enemy was Fascism … It’s something of a myth. A that people on the Left are myth prone to”.

But Mary doesn’t marry Kenneth; she marries Geoffrey Lamb, the cerebral, tech-savvy, quietly racist grandson of the German who was attacked at that VE Day bonfire. They raise their family in Bournville and nearby Lickey Hills. Here they are close to Mary’s cousin Sylvia and her husband, Thomas Foley, who will be familiar to readers of Coe’s novels Mr Wilder and Me (2020), The Rain Before It Falls (2007) and, most significantly, the so-so Expo 58 (2013), set in and around the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. (Coe describes these books as a “loosely connected series” and says he plans to write one more of them after Bournville.)

Mary and Geoffrey have three children: the ambitious capitalist Jack; the milder, more moderate Martin, a proud member of the SDP; and the enigmatic, musical Peter. Martin picks up the chocolate baton. He advocates for Cadbury’s in Brussels during the “chocolate wars” of the 1990s. (He briefly comes into contact with the odious Paul Trotter, in the grip of his Tony Blair idolatry, charted more fully in The Closed Circle, 2004.) Since the Second World War, Cadbury’s has been adding vegetable fat to its chocolate. British consumers have developed a taste for it. But when Britain joined the EU in 1973 a thirty-year dispute began over common standards, with French and Belgian purists claiming 100 per cent pure cocoa butter to be necessary for a product to count as chocolate.

This backdrop allows Coe to explore the anti-Europe propaganda fomenting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and to introduce an all too familiar figure – a journalist with “a wild mop of blonde hair” who is the envy of all his colleagues: “ they never referred to him by his full name”. “Watch out for this fellow”, a French MEP warns Martin, with heavy proleptic irony. “He has the potential to cause a great deal of trouble.” And so the stage is set for Brexit and its intrafamilial discs, and finally for the hypocrisies of the Boris Johnson government during the pandemic.

Bournville is a decades-trotting trigenerational saga, and there is satisfaction inherent in following one group of characters over seventy-five years. The plotting is thoughtful and well executed. Coe’s narrative style is best described as pragmatic. He has information to impart and arguments to lay out, and he’s not afraid to take the path of least resistance – to set up conversations where two characters conveniently deliver opposing views on the monarchy, say. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for this frankness: for having the current affairs front and center rather than awkwardly smuggled in, Ian McEwan’s method in Lessons (2022). By taking the zeitgeist as his protagonist, however, Coe risks producing a hollow-centred confection. Laid next to the more developed cast of The Rotters’ Club novels, the characterization feels thin. Bournville is also not as funny.

Coe has answered the question he set himself. He has ruled his margins with care and kept his handwriting tidy. But the resulting homework feels a bit too much like … well, homework. While the royal events provide a neat structure, there is a dreary Gogglebox element to watching the characters watch TV, again and again. The chocolate material is interesting, but when we get to Johnson, there is nothing that hasn’t already been said ad nausem. The Covid sections are the nadir. As in Elizabeth Strout’s ill-conceived Lucy by the Sea (2022), Coe writes as if this were a unique fictional subject rather than something we’ve all just lived through. Maybe Bournville will mature into a novel of record. For now, not even the injection of some personal material – Mary’s death is based on that of Coe’s own mother – can rescue a coda that includes Johnson’s lockdown announcement copied out verbatim.

Coe is lucid, as always, on the passage of time. In Bournville, though, “lucid” comes close to “glib”. At the start of the novel, we see Doll, Mary’s mother, sweeping her front step and listening to children playing in the nearby schoolyard. “Past, present and future: that was what she heard … Everything changes, and everything stays the same.” In 2020 the house’s new resident, Shoreh, comes out to sweep the steps and the same passage is repeated, word for word. It’s a twee pseudo-profundity that ties up Coe’s readable, moreish yet slightly overdone offering with an ostentatious bow. McEwan’s Lessons – which covers roughly the same time period and engages with Anglo-German relations – might be messier, but it’s indisputably the superior novel, full of real people and fine moral distinctions. I thought, too, of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, with its similar time span: a masterclass in tracking the zeitgeist without resorting to caricature or cliché. Both of them 100 per cent pure cocoa butter, no vegetable fat in sight.

Claire Lowdon’snovelLeft of the Bangwas published in 2015

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