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Bournville

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Member Reviews

Coe has written a family saga told against the backdrop of the Bournville estate in Birmingham, and the old-fashioned chocolate bar.
It’s beautifully nostalgic as it’s told through the events we all remember or have heard of, from Princess Diana’s wedding to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown restrictions.
I’d say that this novel is better at plot than characterisation - sometimes I felt that the family members were a little indistinct - but it is very engaging.
The family secrets, unspoken grudges and alliances will feel real to every reader.
Recommended: it felt particularly poignant to be reading it when the queen died, but was also a delicious slice of the past.

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Jonathan Coe is an excellent writer and I've loved many of his books but he also writes the occasional stinker and unfortunately Bournville is one of them. It's well-written but it's also really, really boring. It's just the ordinary lives of some people from Birmingham at certain noteworthy points of relatively recent history - no plot, nothing really that intereesting happens, and none of the characters are especially standout. It's so easy to put down. Boringville is basically like the literary equivalent of a cup of tea and a biscuit: nice but oh so plain and nowhere approaching exciting.

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Another wonderfully engaging portrait of England from Jonathon Coe, this time running from the end of WW2 to the Covid 19 pandemic. Focusing on families originally living on the much-admired Bournville estate, built from the Quaker Cadbury family’s desire to give their chocolate factory workers pleasant facilities in which to live and work, the author takes us through the decades by way of memorable historical events such as VE Day, the coronation of Elizabeth II, the funeral of Princess Diana and the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
At the centre of the story is Mary, her introvert husband and their three sons. Through them, the grandparents, close friends and, in time, the sons’ partners and children, Coe shows us how and why this country has changed, and not always for the better. In 2020 Mary’s granddaughter’s European colleague criticises Brexit openly: ‘…you’ve done this thing that to us, as far as we can tell, diminishes you, makes you look weaker and more isolated, and yet you seem really pleased with yourselves about it. And then you put this buffoon in charge. What’s going on?’ And reflecting on the way that she has been treated throughout her life, Bridget, Mary’s Black daughter-in-law announces, ‘…these days I don’t think you can be neutral for ever, that’s the thing. There comes a time when everyone has to pick a side.’
And yet, if this sounds at best sombre, the reader can always rely on Coe to use plenty of humour in his latest state-of-the-nation narrative. He also creates thoroughly empathetic credible individuals who can be both wonderfully generous or thoughtful and extremely irritating or selfish, just as in life. No wonder we become engrossed in the story as we grow every more curious about, and attached to, the characters.
Momentous events happen and people are affected but some things remain the same no matter who you are. Decades apart, at the outset and the end of this story, two women pause to relish hearing their children in the playground during school break just as they love the ‘habitual resonant silence’ of their street. The novel concludes with the mantra: ‘Everything changes, and everything stays the same.’ Moving, thought-provoking and wise, this is Coe at his best.
My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin General UK – Fig Tree for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.

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Wonderful as ever. Weaves a family life through events from WW2 to the pandemic lockdown. Funny and astute as ever. Occasionally the large cast of characters can slightly confuse but a v minor point,

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I was very happy to have the opportunity to read this in advance of publication. I really enjoy reading Jonathan Coe and this is easily as good as anything I’ve read by him before.

Seen through the eyes of several different people, mainly linked by family connections, this novel takes a wide-ranging look at the changes in British society from the Second World War to the coronation of Elizabeth II, to the death of Princess Diana, Brexit and then the terrible effect of the Covid pandemic on families in the UK – as well as, of course, the dynamics of family relationships. We see how the world changes mainly through the eyes of Mary, the central character, but also her parents, her husband and also her three sons, who all grow up in the same household but who also view the world in very different ways.

It’s a fascinating book both for its observations on gradual changes in the social climate but also in terms of family relationships. I would definitely recommend it.

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Any new Jonathan Coe book is a pleasure. Bournville is a return to the state of the nation, satirical novel familiar from Middle England or The Rotter's Club. Characters from other of his novels make cameos but the core of the novel is Bournville itself and the lives of the central Lamb family, set against the backdrop of key events in British history from VE Day and the coronation to royal weddings and lockdown. This means the novel can be a little heavy-handed at times in bringing the historical context together with family events but the depiction of Mary Lamb, based on Coe's own mother, from girl through to her death early in lockdown is beautifully and movingly observed. Recommended.

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I have been a huge fan of Jonathan Coe since reading What a Carve Up around three decades ago and so was excited to read the synopsis of Bourneville and for the author to be back in the territory I love best- chronicling a family through history. Bourneville tracks Mary's family from VE day when Mary was 10, through to the Covid pandemic, via significant events such as the World cup and the funeral of Princess Diana. The relationships within Mary's family reflect those of many families especially around the divisions caused by Brexit.
Coe is an absolute master at this genre of novel and for me the words just flew off the page. He writes about his characters with real depth, understanding and empathy. I found this to be a hugely emotional novel and the author's note at the end was particularly moving.
A wonderful novel that I would highly recommend.
Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this digital ARC.

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Two reasons I knew I would love this book. 1. I love books which follow an individual/family throughout their lives or throughout a significant period of time. 2. I love writers who can capture the essence of everyday, family life and very few do it better than Jonathan Coe. I loved Middle England and if you did too, you will love Bournville.

Here we follow Mary and her family from the War through to the pandemic and everything in between. We experience Coronations, World Cup wins and Brexit (boo!) all told through the lens of an everyday family with Coe's state of the nation perspective upon it.

A brilliant warm, funny and, in parts, sad novel and highly recommended.

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin UK, Viking for an ARC in exchange for an honest review

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Mary Clarke is ten on V. E. Day, living with her parents at No 12 Birch Road in Bournville, the village built by the Cadbury family for their workers at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her parents think of themselves as socialists while the Lambs, their neighbours, tend the other way. Coe’s novel follows her and her extended family, which will include the Lambs, through seventy-five years in which the country will sit down and watch elaborate state ceremonies, a moment of sporting triumph, a royal wedding and a funeral.

Telling the nation's story through one family, structuring it around seven occasions that apparently united it, is a clever idea and Coe executes it well. Bournville makes the political personal through the Clarkes and their often opposing views, exploring themes of Britain’s obsession with the past, not least the Second World War, xenophobia, economic and social change through their story. Divisions in the Clarke family often echo those in the country but Coe’s characters are properly three-dimensional in all their complexity. There are some enjoyable set pieces - the 1966 World Cup final is lovingly described as are the Bond films, a Clarke family favourite - and there’s humour to enjoy but this is also an elegiac book. As the touching author’s note makes clear this is a work of fiction but Mary is based very much on Coe’s mother who died during the pandemic, the family unable to have the funeral they would have wanted for her. A thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing novel, both heartfelt and funny.

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Delicious as the dark, fatty chocolate it's named for! I had mixed feelings at first to see Jonathan Coe returning to the world he's so comfortable in, after the out-of-the-ordinary Hollywood/Europe of Mr Wilder and Me with its exotic setting that comes more from Coe the niche film obsessive than Coe the writer of UK state-of-the-nation novels. But really, when his UK state-of-the-nation novels are so good, who can complain?

Unsurprisingly, there are films in this book too, the James Bond franchise (which delights the boys' mothers, particularly the Connery ones) and repeated references to Pinocchio. This is an interesting choice - obviously it was Disney's big movie that initially bombed because of wartime, but it's also interesting for the disproportionate punishment that it metes out to its puppet boy hero for seeking pleasure and self-betterment, echoed in the heroine's horrible experience as a child going through an air raid at the same time Pinocchio is swallowed by the whale.

We return to Birmingham and the world of the Foleys (and even some Trotters from The Rotters' Club, including slightly mad spad Paul who, in a flashback to 1997, seemingly coins the phrase 'the princess of hearts' to describe Diana while perving over photos of his then-boss, Tony Blair). The novel loosely covers the life of Mary Lamb and her three sons (happy-go-lucky Leave voter Jack, closet gay Peter and Martin, who falls in love with a Black woman). Mary is a curious character - passionate, strangely childlike sometimes which makes her a great teacher, a demon driver, and not exactly introspective - but the book's haunting, angry climax makes it clear that her death is going to be just as important as her life, and the terribly sad afterword from the author makes it clear why this is so.

After a quick trip to Europe with Mary's granddaughter Lorna who's trying to launch her music career in March 2020 (oh dear) the novel starts fully with VE Day, taking us through the 1966 World Cup, Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales, Diana's death in a Paris tunnel and the subdued 2020 VE Day celebrations of pandemic-hit Britain - and I promise, you'll be gripped as soon as you hit the World Cup section, if not sooner. Honestly, despite us making such a mess of pretty much everything we touch at the moment, novels like these - if very little else - make me proud to be British.

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The story of one family , set against historic days in British history is a clever idea.
We've all heard of most of these days, or indeed lived through them.
A nice normal family, full of characters , the sort of which you just might know.
There was a few I very much warmed to.
Coe is an excellent storyteller, and I very much enjoyed this tale. I found myself smiling or nodding along in agreement at some of it.
In years to come, it's going to be a good dramatic telling of the pandemic.
All set to a backdrop of chocolate.
Really, what's not to like?

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Bournville is ‘A Novel in Seven Occasions’. It is funny, astute, engaging, nostalgic and sad. It tells the story of a family whose mother, Mary, has lived in Bourneville throughout WWII until she leaves to marry. It is a story of people living through big events, like the Coronation, the World Cup win, Diana’s wedding and death and the covid pandemic, (‘ a couple of years we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about’ ) when, really, it is the small everyday business of life and relationships that is more important.

Coe writes fluently about these historic events and makes them engaging by showing how different family members react. There is the almost reverence shown for Diana once she has died and the mass over the top mourning which is described very well. Especially the consequences for those not quite as avid as others. On royalty, who feature in several of the historic events, I was amused by Mary’s 80 years old father Sam who bemoans:

‘Another bloody royal ceremony. The Coronation was bad enough, but this one, hell’s teeth! She loves it, though: the one thing I was never able to change Doll’s mind about, she loves the royals. Don’t ask me why. I suppose I could understand it when we were young but now, after all this time, I really thought people would have seen through this shower of spongers.’

Coe has a way of gently giving spot on reactions to events for each of his characters and, cleverly, as these are different personalities I always found a viewpoint with which I, as a reader, could empathise; on Brexit for example.

But it is the interlocking relationships of Mary’s family that drives the narrative. Her youngest son Peter has a good plot line. And there is chocolate, lots of chocolate.

‘The air did not smell of chocolate, but chocolate was in the air.’

And it is Mary herself whom I found most interesting and most moving, especially through the pandemic section. Not surprising since she, and her long life, is at the heart of this novel.

I thoroughly recommend this novel. I read a copy provided by NetGalley and Viking but as a confirmed fan of all Jonatan Coe’s previous work I can attest that my opinions are my own.

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