Cover Image: Bournville


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Member Reviews

Bournville is a story that, for me, works at so many levels. It’s a well constructed family saga, set as the title suggests in the Bournville area of Birmingham. It’s not an area I know, but I was aware of the background to the development of housing and community around the chocolate factory and these threads run through the story. The characters feel real and I was happy to invest emotional energy in what was going on. The tale is taken to a different level as key events in r3cent social history shape both the characters and the plotting. They also provide a deeper narrative about the way Britain is changing and how people are affected by Westminster.

This is, in many ways, a state of the nation as seen through ordinary eyes. The final part was particularly poignant as Covid constraints left multiple thousands isolated and alone at a time when they truly needed family support. I think Coe is easy to underestimate. His writing is simple and his characters are ones we are all likely to know or meet. But he makes them relevant a takes the ordinary up to another level allowing social commentary without it becoming a diatribe. Clever and thoughtful and I really enjoyed this.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy via Netgalley.

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This was an engaging journey through the lives of a group of people seen through a series of cultural events, mainly related to the royal family. A shame, then, that the book was written before the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, which would have rounded off the family's connection with significant events in the country and the demise of the key players in the novel. Having lived through many of the experiences, I found the different times and settings familiar and credible, although some were occasionally over-explained in a rather didactic way, particularly details about the Bournville factory. However the family saga was well charted through the generations, coming almost up to date with frustrations from the Covid restrictions. A thoroughly readable and enjoyable read!

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There are certain books that tie you into the characters, get you invested in them, then twist the knife until you could sob. I remember A.S. Byatt doing that with “The Children’s Book” and Larry McMurtry doing it recently with “Some Can Whistle“. Coe certainly does it here, too.

The conceit is a simple one – take an ordinary family in a Birmingham suburb and visit and revisit them at pivotal post-war moments in England – and is here in the hands of a master, who ramps up the relationships and characters, starting with a woman musician and her playing partner experiencing the beginning of the Covid lockdowns in Europe as they try to do a concert tour and returning to them post-pandemic in a heart-wrenching epilogue. In between, we’re moved expertly through VE Day, the Coronation and the World Cup Final to Princess Diana’s funeral, and the 75th anniversary of VE Day, following Mary from a child to an old woman with a looming health condition and the spreading family she engenders. There’s also an email mentioned near the start that we only read near the end, little Iris Murdochian doublings (one character reads the children’s cartoons in his paper; decades later another watches them on TV; two women stand in the doorway of one house, decades apart, hearing the noise of schoolchildren), a sub-plot that surprises and mentions of a favourite character from another set of novels, and sections of the novel are in different formats, reports or lockdown instructions: all very clever but not too clever-clever.

Of course there’s lots for me in terms of local colour – I was particularly pleased to see the little boating lake I love to run to and around mentioned, and there’s an excellent discussion in a restaurant I’ve been to about the origin of the Balti dish.

This is a state of the nation novel, as Coe loves to write – in this one we have the interplay of pro-Europeans and pushy money-makers giving a fraternal contrast – and a Europe novel – the scenes in the European Parliament hilarious and battles over chocolate naming baffling – and it’s also Coe’s Covid novel and it clearly comes from a huge anger – in the Author’s Note at the end he clarifies that it’s a tribute to – not a portrait of – his mother and that she died alone with no personal contact from her family as they followed the rules – unlike the residents of 10 Downing Street. Being a consummate storyteller and craftsperson, he – just – doesn’t allow his angry agenda to unbalance the book.

An excellent book, readable and with depth, technically adept but not offputtingly literary, and highly recommended.

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The triumph of hope over experience. I don’t know why I keep trying with Coe’s novels. I only ever enjoyed the first 2 or 3 and since then they have consistently disappointed me. This one is no exception. The story of a Birmingham family spanning 75 years from 1945 to 2020, it’s a multi-generational saga centring on seven distinct events marking significant moments in British history and reflecting the changing face of British life. A reasonably clever conceit, but the execution is lacking. The characters are essentially uninteresting, sometimes even caricatures. The writing is bland and pedestrian, full of clichés and trivialities, with stilted dialogue, and I remained unengaged throughout, skipping large chunks just to get to the end. Formulaic, unoriginal and lazy. Coe needs to up his game rather than keep reworking the subject matter he seems to have comfortably settled into.

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The suburb of Bourneville grew up around the Cadbury's chocolate factory and it is where 11 year old Mary lives with her parents. Starting from VE Day in 1945 and coming up to (almost the present day) Mary's story and that of her family is punctuated by major events in British life and their lives reflect the changing face of Britain in the last 75 years.
Coe is always an author who can be relied upon to produce a thoroughly enjoyable book with a streak of satire and humour, this is no exception and is really wonderful. A cynic might say that it is manipulative and full of cliches, and the plot does seem like that, but it is the quality of the writing and empathy that reader develops with each character that makes it so good - why is Jack more peripheral than Martin or Peter? It's because he epitomises what some people feel is wrong in society, selfish and ambitious with unpleasant view, a small dose is enough to get the idea.

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I usually love Jonathan Coe books. I devoured the Trotter family trilogy and was really looking forward to this latest novel. However, it just fell a bit flat for me. The novel follows the main charcter, Mary through her childhood to old age living in the model village of Bournville. It provides a snapshot of her life in several time periods with large gaps in between. Each new time jump coincides with a significant national event such as the Coronation or England winning the World cup. and includes the transcript of famous speeches or radio/TV coverage from the time, neat little history lessons.

I found the time jumps meant that I didn't have a sense of how Mary and her relatives evolved and I also I didn't really get a sense of what Bournville was really like. Its origins were covered in about half a page. The main characters were quite dull and some were rascist and misogynist, so I didn't find the narrative "funny" as promised on the book cover.

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Just as he did in his Middle England trilogy, Coe here has given so much space to describing events of the period in question that it often reads as much like a short history of modern Britain as a novel. It's a frustrating habit of Coe's, but I nevertheless adore his books. His writing is wonderful, his stories are clever and deep, and his left-wing politics are always spot on. Although this was by no means my favourite of his novels - The Rotters Club and What A Carve Up! share that particular crown - it was a consistently good one, and it wins bonus points for ridiculing that awful, awful arserag, Boris Johnson.

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“Past, present and future: that was what she heard….Everything changes, and everything stays the same.”

I’m sure my request for Bournville by Jonathan Coe was inspired by the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Promising a portrait of Britain as experienced by a middle class family over a period of seventy five years, I felt a tug of nostalgia tied to the end of an era.

After a prologue set in 2020, Coe begins with VE Day in 1945 where the residents of Bournville, a Birmingham village built around the Cadbury chocolate factory, simply known as the Works, are celebrating the end of the war. It’s here that eleven year old Mary lives with her parents Sam and Doll, and over the next seven decades, coinciding with seven memorable events in British history, Coe revisits Mary and her growing family.

The unique structure works well to reflect the national and individual experience of the changes in culture, attitudes, politics, technology and economics. I enjoyed the sojourn through each ‘occasion’ which includes the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the World Cup Final between England v. West Germany in 1966, the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and then the Princess’s tragic death in 1997, ending with 2020, which marks the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, and the start of the CoVid pandemic, but it is the journey of the characters that illustrate their meaning. Coe charts the family’s joys and griefs, triumphs and regrets, gains and losses, creating a history of their own as time marches on.

Written with tenderness, humour, and insight, Bournville evokes life’s ordinary and extraordinary moments. Enjoy with a block of Cadbury chocolate..

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I loved this book. It was a clever device following different generations of a family through major milestones of British life and how they interacted with that event, as well as each other. A real social history from VE Day to the Pandemic. The link to Bournville and chocolate was a light touch. So many characters and such warm humour made this an excellent read.

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'And all that caper...'
Coe's latest novel takes us on a trip though the past 75 years of British (well, English) life, using as stepping stones seven significant episodes from with VE Day in 1945 to its 75th anniversary just as the Covid-19 storm was gathering. En route we see the Coronation, the 1966 World Cup, the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales, his and Princess Diana's wedding (and later, her funeral) and other moments of the (allegedly) whole-nation-together-watching on TV sort. (The Investiture? Really? I was only 2 at the time so don't remember it, but did people really tune in the same way as for the others?)

It is perhaps an irony that the book appears too late to add in the recent death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II - surely the apotheosis of this kind of shared experience. I certainly read the part dealing with the funeral of Diana - with its evocation of the ever-thickening crowds and then the comment that 'the Queen had not even returned to London from Balmoral' in a different way to how I might a couple of months ago. A persistent problem, perhaps, with anything touching the British royal family is the abundance of potential meaning and there being just too many references - Coe intended I think to use Diana's marriage and funeral to make a point about the refusal of the Lambs to properly welcome Bridget, a woman marrying in who's not from a White British background ('families like this... they never really accept people from outside, do they?' ) but actually when that's more or less reflected in the ballads every single day it might seem just obvious).

Coe portrays both the immediate consumption, as it were, of these moments - families gathered around flickering monochrome TV or flatscreen panel or sat at bunting-decked tables in the street - and the weeks and months around them, following several generation of the Lamb family. It all starts with Sam and Doll Lamb and their daughter Mary in Bournville, a suburb of Birmingham dominated by the Cadbury's chocolate factory, in 1945. The book plugs into the wider Coeniverse, featuring characters from earlier novels, sometimes as walks-ons (I glimpsed a couple of Trotters!) and sometimes in more significant roles (David and Gill Foley and their father Thomas - as Coe points out in his Afterword, this book has a particularly close relationship to Expo 58, The Rain Before It Falls and Mr Wilder and Me).

For me, that embedding gives the book wider resonance, drawing on established characters and filling in gaps in the chronology, though it made me ache for a family tree. There would definitely be a market (well, of me) for a Coe Companion. It goes some way to address what is otherwise an inevitable result of the episodic nature of the book, that its alighting on particular moments from decade to decade risks a sort of "1970s House" ness - you know, the reality series where a family move through a year in each episode, their technology, food and possessions being rudely updated each time. Coe tells us for example that 'there is a new shop on the King's Road, apparently - she has read about it in the Sunday Times colour magazine - which is called Habitat...' and we know that now the 60s are Happening. Or a character will be proselytising the virtues of the Sinclair ZX81, demonstrating that the age of the home computer revolution are upon us. I'm not saying that these moments ring falsely - the ZX81 thing is part of fleshing out a character who others comes over as rather unsympathetic, for good reasons - just that with relatively little space for each episode, references like this seem a bit obvious, and can rather draw the oxygen from character development. Similarly there is a sense of characters being placed to experience or expound something - nearly witnessing the birth of balti cooking for example, or set up to compare bland postwar English cooking with the spicier, smokier German version.

Bournville does, though, tackle these moments of change, or potential change, in another way. As they witness national celebrations and mourning, characters here are prone - as I think we all are - to read a significance into things, to look for turning points and moments of decision. Of course these are often overturned subsequently (so, in a sense, the glimpse of a future Utopia at VE Day, with the Attlee government waiting in the wings, is soon undone by an Establishment that its able to stage the Coronation - Geoffrey's delighted musing: this marked the resumption of normality, like 'like a breath of stale air...'). By the end of the book we're more inclined perhaps to accept that (as is repeatedly stated) 'Everything changes, and everything stays the same' - whether you take that as comforting, or bleak (the book allows for both points of view).

Given its episodic nature, again, different parts come at the reader in quite different ways. There are lots of stories, story arcs and characters and I think everyone will have their favourites. I enjoyed the family holiday in Wales (but my family used to take holidays in Wales in the early 70s, so maybe it's that) which is virtually a self-contained episode, albeit one revisited later with more understanding.

The funniest was the "chocolate wars" episode in Brussels, intended, I think, as a hook to bring in a certain straw-haired journalist and later politician whose career is touched on briefly (''always under-prepared, always over-committed' who Coe lacerates further in his Author's Note. I don't think though this book is generally trying to be overtly funny - though there are some moments that will produce smiles, for example when Sam was 'entertained by the sound of his daughter [Mary] and Beethoven engaged in mortal combat' or when Mary is dismayed that she and her mother have been invited to a church service to celebrate VE Day: 'This was a dreadful turn of events' (she even tries to get out of it by offering to do the washing-up).

My favourite of all was Lorna's European travels in the Prologue - I felt that her concert tour, undertaken as covid-19 was beginning to close down the Continent ('It would break her heart if this weird little virus were to derail everyone's plans') had the same shrewd observation as much of Mr Wilder and Me. I could have read a whole book about Lorna and her bandmate Mark.

I'm not sure if it's significant that the two bits of the book that struck me most are set outside England. Clearly one can read Bournville as a "condition of England" novel (England, not Britain or the UK, because the current of progress and reaction, of prejudice and enlightenment, that swirl here are portrayed in relation to England). But the most interesting themes are wider than England. It's not, I want to assure you, a Brexit novel in the same way as Middle England, though inevitably some of the same themes occur - like the transformation of the Cadbury factory to a visitor experience, which proceeds in the background of the book, a counterpoint perhaps to the Lamb family's love of James Bond films (those 'strange, adolescent, sadopatriotic fantasies'). And it does have a sense of hope. There are people here who change their minds. There is a refusal by some to buy into the national myth ('It's just that I think there's an idea that some people like to have about the war. That it was a political thing...') There vis also a clear-eyed recognition that if the past, the present and the future are all present at once, then there still 'comes a time when everybody has to pick a side' (Bridget, again).

To conclude, there is a great deal in Bournville and I enjoyed reading it. How far everything is completely digested or made coherent, I'm not sure, but then maybe it shouldn't be, if we're thinking about England. One strange thing that I have to add it that as I was reading the book at breakfast, the BBC morning programme covered the historical discovery, in and around Birmingham, of large boulders deposited by glaciers which were apparently important in the development of geology as a science. One of these was found when the Bournville chocolate factory was built. And where did we see characters in this book going for a drink win VE Night but... the Great Stone Inn!

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Coe is well known for his “state of England” novels, particularly the Trotter stories, but sadly I didn’t find this stand-alone story as absorbing and engaging as the others. A family saga covering the end of WWII to the VE anniversary in 2020, the narrative is framed around key events such as the Queen’s coronation, England winning the World Cup and the death of Princess Diana, but there is often too much detail about these events rather than about the family themselves, and the large cast of characters are only really seen through snapshots so we never get to know them very well. The story begins with young Mary and her parents living in the Cadbury factory village, but this fascinating part of Midlands history is not really developed, apart from a section about the wrangling with the EU to get the British product accepted as chocolate despite its high fat content. There are several amusing observations, particularly the portrayal of a young Boris Johnson, and it is certainly a trip down memory lane, but I could not help but be rather disappointed overall.

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Absolutely devoured this book!! I'm from Birmingam myself originally and I have to say Jonathan Coe captures the lifestyle and all the little eccentricities perfectly! Highly recommended.
Thanks to Netgalley, Jonathan Coe and the publisher for the ARC.

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Bournville by Jonathan Coe

The book follows the seven decades through major events featuring Mary who is based at the Bournville village. Especially created by the Cadbury family for their workers and their families.

I have mixed views regarding this book and where it actually falls as I have lived through six of those decades. It was a bit too political for my liking.

I liked Mary but there were such a lot of characters to keep track.

I had high expectations of this book as I have a very good memory of those times and of the major changes that have occurred. Some I may say were not for the better. However I was left with mixed feelings regarding Mr Coe’s interpretation of times though he obviously is reasonably well researched. I am not sure I liked his writing style I felt it fell between factual and fiction therefore didn’t really work for me.

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The author’s theme here is the effect of the various changes in British society spanning 75 years, from VE Day to the Covid pandemic hysteria, as shown through several generations of a family living in the Cadbury factory village of Bournville, Birmingham.
The influences on family life and the sense of British identity and mood are set against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, racism, modern technology, the mass media, the EU and the Monarchy,
Coe’s narrative style follows the Dicken’s tradition of a ‘state of the nation’ social commentary, but his often heavy-handedly expressed political opinions (e.g. his anti-Brexit stance) can sometimes marr the reading experience for me.

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This was an enjoyable take on the recent social change of the 20th century as seen through a few families growing up in and around Bournville. Starts off from VE Day and takes you to the still current, covid issues. Learnt stuff about the Common Market and chocolate which I did not know. Maybe a bit too much retelling of recent historical events. Works better when the family story is told. Thanks to Netgalley.

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I always feel in safe hands reading Jonathan Coe, the way he writes about British history and identity is so well thought through and entertaining to read.
In Bournville, we follow one family through several generations across some key moments in shared British history, including coronations, Royal weddings, all the way up to Covid - firstly with a child Mary as a child, then following her as she grows up and starts her own family, moving onto her children and grandchildren as they grow up in turn. There's a lot to think about about how life has changed so much during one lifetime, and priorities and personal interests develop and change too.
I was pleased to see some familiar characters like the Trotters returning from previous books,

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A brilliant and intriguing book, the story of Britain told by Mary, a woman living in Bournevell. It's not an easy review because I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, loved Mary, and learned a lot about moments and how the social changes since the end of WWII.
I also learned about Bourneville, a sort of utopian town build in the XIX century by Cadbury brothers.
Jonathan Coe is a master storyteller and the characters are lively and intriguing. I loved Mary, loved her being down to the hearth and her will to live and face her life-threatening illness as my mother.
It's a fascinating book that helped me to understand how history and people changed.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this arc, all opinions are mine

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Being aware of the homes built to support the workers, I was keen to read this one.

Bournville is the name of the town which sprung up around Cadbury's factory in Birmingham and this is the story of four generations of a family who lived there. Tied in, as you would expect, with the world of chocolate manufacturing it paints a picture of the social changes in Britain from the post-war era to the present day.

I expected to enjoy this novel as I was born in the late fifties and was familiar with the events covered. There are some amusing moments and it is enlightening to be reminded of how things have changed over the years. At times, I wasn't sure whether it counted as a novel as I often found the author's own opinions on the pages. This rather spoiled things for me and took away the 'fictional' part of the read. Not quite as good as I expected and, for me, a four star read.

My thanks to the publisher for my copy via NetGalley; this is - as always - my honest, original and unbiased review.

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This did not work for me either as novel or a social history of Britain. I found the writing pedestrian in many sections, and I just didn’t get the idea of jumping between major ‘events’ in British recent history. The jumping about also made it difficult to keep the different characters in my head as the family and friends extended, so I was constantly having to read on until something helped me remember what I’d read many pages before. In the end I found it glib and lazy writing, and could not actually decide what the author wanted to achieve.

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Bournville by Jonathan Coe
I have been a fan of Jonathan Coe’s writing since reading What a Carve Up! in 1994. This book is another beautifully captured portrait of family life and also a commentary on Britain told through memorable historic events. The book opens with Lorna travelling around Europe in March 2020 as part of a jazz duet. At each venue it closes down after her performance with the final performance not actually taking place.
At the centre of the story is Mary, a young girl who celebrates VE day in the first event which Coe focuses upon. It at this event that she meets for the first time someone whose career she will follow throughout her life. The Cadbury’s factory also forms a large part of the story and Martin, one of Mary’s sons tells us in great detail about the so called chocolate wars with the EU. We also encounter albeit through reported conversations the awful Boris who writes for the Telegraph and makes a mockery of everything he encounters.
We see major events in history through the magnifying glass of one family’s interactions with each other and with friends and through the strength of his writing Jonathan Coe enabled me to travel through time back to those occasions in my own history.
The ending of the novel dealing with the horrors of Covid and the awful way in which people were forced to endure their last hours in pain and without the comfort of their loved ones was extremely hard hitting. I would thoroughly recommend this novel to others and will be discussing it at my various book groups. Many thanks to the author, to Penguin and to Net Galley for the opportunity to read this book in return for an honest review.

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