Viking, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Expo 58, By Jonathan Coe

Swinging, snooping Brussels is the odd backdrop to this artful comedy of postwar manners

Jonathan Coe's tenth novel begins with historical fact. There was indeed an Expo (Exposition, or World's Fair) in 1958, hosted by the Belgian government on the Heysel plateau just north of Brussels. It was the first to be held since the Second World War and its defining sight was a gigantic structure called the Atomium, 300 feet high and built to resemble the unit cell of an iron crystal: a symbol of the connectedness of nations. The intention of the Expo was to show off the contributing countries' achievements in arts, science and technology, and to develop "a genuine unity of mankind". This high ambition suffered a real-life setback when the Russians accused the Americans of pinching their Sputnik model.

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

The Sputnik incident doesn't feature in Coe's fictional account of the Fair. But he has seized with a kind of restrained English glee on the comic possibilities offered by a postwar gathering of nations showing off their wonderfulness in supposed harmony. Leading us through the fair is Thomas Foley, 32, handsome, married and restless; he works for the Central Office of Information, writing pamphlets to alert the public to the safest way to cross a road. Thomas's father ran a pub, and his mother is Belgian. So when the Foreign Office decides that, among the emblems of Britishness in the British Pavilion, there should be a mock-up of an English pub called The Britannia, Thomas is the natural choice as overseer.

Coe's Expo is a place of resplendent fakery. The Parc des Attractions features a fake Bavarian beerhouse with lederhosen-clad orchestra and foaming tankards. The host country lays on a "living museum" or fake village, La Belgique Joyeuse ("Gay Belgium".) Thomas's friend Emily, from Wisconsin, is employed in the American pavilion to demonstrate to awestruck Russians the range of US labour-saving devices by Hoovering all day long in a mocked-up sitting-room. And as Thomas meets hostesses, delegates, barmaids, scientists and assorted visitors, it gradually dawns on him that hardly anybody is who they seem.

Hints of espionage prickle like static. Secrets are being passed to the Russians but nobody knows how. Warnings are murmured in Thomas's ear by chaps in suits. One day he is abducted, blindfolded and has a gun pressed to his ribs. He falls in love with a Belgian hostess, but is told to romance a different girl, in order to steer her from the clutches of handsome editor Andrey Chersky, who may be KGB…

It's a rich and splendidly comic confection. Coe doesn't avoid clichés in depicting the late 1950s – he delights in them, and draws them, postmodernistically, from a dozen sources. His narrating voice is studiedly old-fashioned, guarded, mildly bigoted: "Thomas turned to get the measure of this speaker for the first time. With one remark, all his prejudices about Americans had been confirmed. The man was young, in his late twenties or early thirties and his hair was crew-cut…" Characters say things like "Tickety-boo" and "I don't quite see what you're driving at, old man." Others, like hard-faced platinum blonde barmaid Shirley Knott (geddit?), seem to have strayed from a Carry On film.

It's no surprise to find that Thomas, up to his neck in spies and temptresses, is reading From Russia With Love, published in 1957. A pair of Foreign Office suits who pop up to advise or warn Thomas in antiphonal cross-talk are called Radford and Wayne, a nod to the actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne who played the cricket-obsessed buffers Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. And the story is decidedly Hitchcockian: there's a McGuffin (the "Zeta machine", which disappears) and the plot often hangs on tiny ephemera, including a corn plaster and a crisp packet. The whole novel is an amusing echo-chamber of allusions.

Coe thickens the texture with a sub-plot involving Thomas's mother-in-law's attempt to confront the gruesome past when German soldiers razed her idyllic Belgian village. In the last chapter, he fast-forwards the action to 2009, to reveal the characters' fates and dramatise a poignant encounter between Thomas and a woman from Expo 58. But these darker hues sit rather uncomfortably beside the bright pastel colours of the main events: Europe's emergence from her dreadful past, and Thomas's glimpse of a new neo-Sixties world of reckless hedonism, galaxies away from Sunday lunch in Leatherhead.

Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray is joining Strictly Come Dancing 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Double bill: Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in ‘Nymphomaniac’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Big Blues - Shark' by Alexander Mustard won the Coast category

photography
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering