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Review: Expo 58, By Jonathan Coe

back to the future, only in Belgium

Britain in the 1950s was different. While austerity lessened towards the end of that decade, life was considerably more frugal than anything we have experienced recently, economic downturn or not. And if social mobility has been sluggish of late, back then the class system was shockingly rigid.

The civil service, for example, was ossified. In Expo 58, Thomas Foley is a minion in the Central Office of Information. So he is surprised to be called into a meeting with the Director of Exhibitions and offered a special role at the upcoming World's Fair in Belgium – the eponymous Expo. Because Foley's mother is Belgian and his father was a publican he is uniquely qualified, it seems, to supervise the running of The Britannia, the British theme pub at the Fair.

It is a great opportunity for him, but it means leaving his wife and baby behind in Tooting, south London, exposed to the attentions of their intrusive neighbour Norman Sparks. On arrival in Belgium, Foley is dazzled by the Expo's futuristic architecture. And he's also dazzled by the winsome Anneke, an on-site hostess.

Coe's tenth novel is characterised by his customary lightness of touch. Foley is well cast as an innocent abroad. He is modest and retiring, a thoroughly decent chap who goes blithely unaware that he is handsome. His looks are useful. Some of the novel's most acute humour comes courtesy of a pair of MI6 agents who take a close interest in Foley; one of the Expo's less publicised features is the Cold War espionage lurking behind proceedings.

There is a suspicion that the risible ineptness of the Secret Service during this era needs no further help from Coe, but the agents' line in minatory patter has splendid echoes of Harold Pinter. The farce around infidelity, meanwhile, is entertaining, though perhaps the plot machinations around Sparks and Mrs Foley become rather transparent.

Coe mines some of the period material for irony – he gives knowing descriptions of characters smoking heavily, indoors and out, baffled by nascent health warnings. Elsewhere, however, his neglect of the vicissitudes of the period means his portrait tends towards pastiche. This was a time, after all, when poor diet and an absence of central heating meant endemic boils and chilblains, when daring to mow your lawn on a Sunday risked the wrath of neighbours, and when almost all men dressed almost identically – all subjects, these, down on bended knees begging for satire.

More arresting is Coe's treatment of the Expo itself, scrupulously faithful to an event that was simultaneously surreal and wilfully Postmodern. It is the Expo's fleeting utopian vision that frames the novel and its characters, leaving the latter abandoned and forlorn as history moves on around and past them. This unusual ability to counterpoint the comic and the poignant is what sets Coe's writing apart, and he excels at it here once more. If Expo 58 cannot scale the comedic heights of The Rotters' Club and What A Carve Up!, its interplay of time and emotion scores highly.

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