When I read the blurb for this new Jonathan Coe book – I was very excited to request a copy from NetGalley. Here it is – to see if it entices you too:
“In Bournville, a placid suburb of Birmingham, sits a famous chocolate factory. For eleven-year-old Mary and her family in 1945, it’s the centre of the world. The reason their streets smell faintly of chocolate, the place where most of their friends and neighbours have worked for decades. Mary will go on to live through the Coronation and the World Cup final, royal weddings and royal funerals, Brexit and Covid-19. She’ll have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Parts of the chocolate factory will be transformed into a theme park, as modern life and the city crowd in on their peaceful enclave.
As we travel through seventy-five years of social change, from James Bond to Princess Diana, and from wartime nostalgia to the World Wide Web, one pressing question starts to emerge: will these changing times bring Mary’s family – and their country – closer together, or leave them more adrift and divided than ever before?
Bournville is a rich and poignant new novel from the bestselling, Costa award-winning author of Middle England. It is the story of a woman, of a nation’s love affair with chocolate, of Britain itself.”
I have lived within a few miles of Bournville all of my life and equally my parents and grandparents have also lived nearby – so it felt very ‘close to home’ literally as well as figuratively. The generations of the family in this story are about 1/2 a generation out from mine – but still incredibly relevant.
The book starts in Vienna in March 2020 – just as the world is about to go mad as Covid 19 hits. It then goes back in time to VE day in 1945 as Mary Lamb is a small child celebrating the end of the war with her family.
The book then uses huge events that are happening as key chapters in the book – it reminded me a bit of a historic blog post I did about remembering where you were when specific key events in the world happened. Also, the fact that lots of these events involve the Royal Family made it even more poignant given the fact that the Queen recently died.
This is a swooping family drama – and I’ve read some reviews complaining that nothing really happens – but it is the story of a family life – and thankfully my own family life doesn’t involve many murders or mysteries either!
For me the local backdrop was lovely – not only was Bournville unsurprisingly a key geographical location – I got even more excited as characters moved initially to the Lickey Hills – and then Barnt Green, which is the next village to us! Just like in the book – when we first moved to the village we found that lots of people worked at either The Austin (subsequently The Rover) or Cadburys – both of which loom large during the book.
I have to say that I had realised that Cadbury’s chocolate didn’t taste the same overseas – but I wasn’t fully up to speed with the politics of chocolate – particularly across Europe – so was educated on that by the book.
The book circles back to during the pandemic – and it is incredibly moving (even more so when I realised that some of it was based upon real life experiences of the author and his family during the covid 19 situation).
The book has some ‘Easter Eggs’ in it from the authors other novels – and a couple of names were familiar – but it’s a long time since I watched ‘The Rotters Club’ on TV back in 2005.
Now I probably would have bought this book for lots of my relatives – especially my Great Aunt who lives in Bournville – however there is quite an explicit sex scene, and it just feels really out of sorts with the rest of the book – and I’d be uncomfortable knowing she was reading it!
Overall, as a proud Brummie – and South Brummie at that – I really enjoyed the book and all of the local history entwined with British history of the last 75 years. It also makes you realise that what we’ve all been through with the pandemic will soon be history taught to kids in schools.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my ARC.