“Life’s a box of chocolates,” Forrest Gump said all the way back in 1994 – by which, he means to say, “you never know what you’re going to get.” Which is only true, as I’m sure a million people have said over the years, if you lose the little guide to what chocolates are in the box. Or are unfamiliar with the chocolates themselves and can’t work out that, say, the red one is strawberry. Why do we raise this hoary old Forrest Gump-ism from the ground we hear you say? Well, because Bournville, Jonathan Coe’s 14th novel, is a little like a box of chocolates itself – in the sense that bits of it we like, bits of it we don’t like and bits of it we’d prefer to leave in the box on the off-chance that someone else might come along with a preference for it.
Bournville is the story of a family that more or less begins on VE day and lasts until September 2020. Over the course of some 350 pages, we intersect with various family members at times of national significance – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the 1966 World Cup Final, the investiture of Prince Charles, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the funeral of Diana and, finally, the 75th anniversary of VE day.
Our narrative throughline is, in some senses, the character of Mary Clarke (who Coe tells us in the afterword is based on his mum, who sadly passed away during the Coronavirus epidemic). We are first introduced to Mary as a very old lady, struggling with a tablet to Skype with her niece, Lorna, as Lorna is set to embark on her first tour of Europe as part of a two-piece instrumental group but who we travel back in time in the company of in short order to revisit all of those destinations outlined above. We meet Mary’s mum, Doll, and her dad, Sam. In time, we’re also introduced to her children, Jack, Martin and Peter.
But that’s not all – Mary’s husband, Geoffrey, is related (as a result of his Germanic grandfather) to the Trotters, who you’ll recognise from The Rotter’s Club, The Closed Circle and Middle England. We also hear from Thomas, David and Gill Foley, characters who have appeared in one way or another, in Expo 58, The Rain Before it Falls and Mr Wilder and Me. If that feels a little knotty – well, it is. “This novel is intended to stand alone,” Coe writes – but it doesn’t, entirely, and it may be you’ll find yourself, as we did, in occasional need of a good family tree (and we’d recommend the one that appears in the French edition of Bournville should be replicated in the English paperback version too – it definitely helps!).
At first it’s as good a Coe novel as you could hope for. We hear from Lorna in 2020, we hear from Doll and Mary, amongst others, in 1945. We skip forward to 1953 and learn more about Geoffrey’s courtship of Mary and her ever so slight mental dalliance with a boy called Kenneth. By the time 1966 rolls around, she has three sons, one of whom is obsessed with footie. Mary’s cousin Sylvia has a son called David who befriends Mary’s son Peter – and they are all close enough to holiday together in Wales. By the time we reach 1969, we’re certainly starting to notice that a fair number of characters are being juggled.
Which isn’t to say that Bournville is ever anything less than fascinating (the holiday in Wales features the story of a flooded Welsh village and, in time, gives rise to a narrative tributary about Welsh terrorism which is, as we say, fascinating) – but as the book proceeds, it does come to feel like a great many tributaries that never quite manage to flow together in river form (as they did so well in Middle England). So, for example, Mary’s son Martin marries a black girl called Bridget and Mary’s husband never warms to her or really speaks to her (because he is a racist and everyone knows but no one really says anything or chides him about it, even when he tries to set up Martin with a girl from his office instead). Mary’s son Jack is a (relatively typical) bolshy Brexit-voting sort (who Bridget stops speaking to, in turn, because of his views). Mary’s son Peter is a gay man, on the quiet, who takes time to relax into his sexuality.
And, you know, Charles marries Di (and characters think this is just the kind of thing the country needs after a bit of a hard time) and Diana dies (and mostly everyone thinks it’s a terrible thing, apart from a man Peter likes who accidentally laughs as he passes some grievers and gets an almighty kick in the nads for his troubles) and eventually we arrive right back where we started, at the pandemic, and the story of Mary and Jonathan Coe’s mother converge in a way that makes it feel very real again (certainly when offset by the idiotic behaviour of Matt Hancock on I’m a Celebrity).
Politically, as you’d expect from Coe at this point, it’s bang on the money and you feel his righteous indignation. As he says in the afterword,
“… it still saddens and angers me that my mother died alone, without pain relief, and that members of her family were allowed no personal contact with her as it happened.”
But then, Coe continues,
“… like thousands of families up and down the country – and unlike the occupiers of number 10 Downing Street at the time – we were following the rules.”
Any Cop?: Whilst we didn’t enjoy ourselves as much as we did with both Mr Wilder and Me and Middle England, and whilst we do think Bournville is ever so slightly all over the place, Jonathan Coe continues to hold us in his spell and we very much look forward to either the next book featuring Thomas Foley and familiar, or the next book featuring the Trotters, or indeed a different kind of book altogether.