20 July 2013 Leave a comment
Author: Jonathan Coe.
Summary: Sinister spies, an Englishman abroad, and a pub called Britannia. Welcome to the centre of the world. Welcome to Belgium. Welcome to Expo 58.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5
Review: I enjoyed this book. It was easy to read and on a few occasions made me laugh quite thoroughly. Though i am still puzzled as to how someone could have a “moon-shaped” face… Was it full, half, crescent or new moon?
An Englishman, Thomas, with a wife and baby gets shipped off the Belgium for Expo 58 to supervise the British pavilion’s British pub. While away he gets caught up in pseudo-romances and shady international spying.
Thomas… He comes across as quite weak-willed and unsure of himself. One minute he thinks he loves his wife and child, the next he finds his domestic life a bore. Part of him wants a whirlwind romance with the Belgian hostess, Anneke, while he also doesn’t really care about her at all. Really, Thomas doesn’t know what he wants. I think his wife figured that out a long time ago, and just exasperatedly puts up with him.
Mr Radford and My Wayne are by far the most entertaining characters in this book. Mysterious government agents of some kind, they make an amusing double act. They intimidate, reassure and manipulate people whilst finishing each other’s sentences.
The romance angle in the story only interested me for so long; Thomas’ clear unwillingness to even think about what he really wanted became a bore. His obliviousness to the international spies and covert operations going on around him where what kept me truly entertained.
He eventually discovered that something was going on, but couldn’t grasp what, and was then given a tall-tale of an explanation. Thomas is quite strategically roped into the games, but not quite in the way he thinks he is.
Seeing the whole thing unfold from Thomas’ point of view is interesting. Realising how close to the centre of the whole operation he is, but how completely unknowing he’s been. It’s quite obvious to the reader that what Thomas believes is happening is not actually what is going on, but when the truth (or what we can only assume is the truth—Mr Radford and Mr Wayne have never truly been forthcoming) is finally revealed, it was under his nose all along.
The best scene in the book, for me, was the meeting to discuss the British pavilion before the Expo began. A room full of grown men arguing about how (in)appropriate it is to talk openly about faeces. And a man adamantly defending the idea of an exhibition celebrating the British invention of the flushing toilet, followed by the funniest lines in the entire book:
“Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?”
Gardener leaned forward. “And might I remind you, Sir John, that even Her Majesty – even Her Majesty…”
I was rather unimpressed with the ending, which seemed rather pointless and ended the whole thing on a bit of a downer. Enlightening us as to how Thomas lived out his unexciting life, and then enlightening Thomas to the missed opportunity of a life he could have had—a life he never fully considered taking.
I did like the details of the Britannia pub that was opened in Dover, and how it evolved, along with Britain, over the years. Ending up a far cry from what the representatives of Britain were attempting with the original Britannia pub at Expo 58.
Overall, a light-hearted and entertaining read. Not quite the ‘Ealing comedy meets Hitchcockian thriller’ the blurb promises, but amusing and thrilling in its own way nonetheless.