Cover Image: Bournville


Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Very absorbing story of a family beginning with world war 2. They live in Bournville, the chocolate village. The story is told via a series of notable events such as the Coronations, the 1966 World Cup competition and Diana’s death. Laterally we visit covid. I loved the personal stories and how the children develop into adulthood. Quite a long period covered so maybe not as much depth as some previous novels but still very enjoyable

Was this review helpful?

With an eye catching cover seen through the eyes of a chocoholic, I just had to read this!

Set mostly in Bournville, Birmingham, the story takes us to various historical events over 75 years in the companionship of four generations of one family. As we move through recent history this book may well resurrect memories of past decades, depending on your age.

I have mixed feelings about this novel as at times I found I was confused by the large cast of characters This novel seemed to lack direction, despite travelling through time with side-line stories of relationships and the broader landscape. From a historical point of view though, the various episodes contain a series of facts which make it interesting and readable, as it is well written and researched, a hint of humour, particularly the references to Boris and the Chocolate War in Brussels before standing for an unsuccessful election bid in Wales. It’s ending is bitter and honest.

Was this review helpful?

I'm new to Jonathan Coe's work and perhaps this wasn't the best introduction. The main plus point of the novel is the wonderfully assured writing style which flows easily across loosely linked family stories across the decades. With a large cast followed over 70 years, the characters were all distinctive and vivid, and their various stories kept me interested enough to read the book quickly. Curiously, I was as the same time listening to Ian McEwan's Lessons on audiobook and I was struck by the parallels between the two novels. Both aim to entwine the political and personal in a state of the nation tale about Britain since the second world war. Both writers base some of their characters on real people, and both narratives are flawed by the slightly heavy handed politics. But McEwan's story has real drama. Coe's is a more gentle trot through mainly uneventful lives. The tragic finale (based on a real event) is the only really gripping part of the book. Glad I'm now familiar with Coe's work but not sure I'd go back to it.

Was this review helpful?

Bournville is one of Jonathan Coe’s “state of the nation” novels. Bookended by chapters set during the Covid years, he has taken 7 world events and used them as the basis of chapters. The novel tells the story of one family; Dot and Sam move to the new Birmingham suburb of Bournville, created by the Cadbury family for their workers. They have a daughter called Mary and we follow her, her family and relatives through the years. The events that Coe chooses are VE Day, the 1966 World Cup and a number of Royal events which have affected the mood of the nation.
This episodic format creates a few issues as it is difficult to get to know the characters well when you jump timeframes, particularly as some characters hardly get mentioned from one to next. In particular, the middle son Jack exists as little more that caricature. He is somewhat heavy handed on the subjects he feels strongly about, such a Brexit, which isn’t a surprise but can be a little wearying.
As always with Jonathan Coe, the writing is strong and the story rattles along. It’s fun to find characters from other novels popping up and his descriptive powers, particularly of Bournville and its surrounds are wonderful. The love for his hometown shines through.
This wasn’t my favourite of his novels but it’s always a pleasure to spend time reading his books.

Was this review helpful?

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Ian McEwan‘s most recent novel Lessons. One of the key themes of the novel was how certain major world events affected the main character, a man who was the same age as McEwan, though whose life was very different from McEwan’s.

Jonathan Coe’s novel is very different but they do share one thing in that he too focusses in on key events (though primarily British events or events seem from the British perspective) which affect his main characters. Unlike McEwan, he does not focus on one character but an extended family. The characters are not in any way based on real people, according to Coe himself in the afterword, with one exception: the main female character, Mary Lamb, née Clarke, is based on his mother.

Coe is clearly interested as much in the extended family as in any individuals and while some individuals in the family play a larger role than others – Mary Lamb and her youngest son Peter in particular- Coe is far more interested in family interaction than Mc Ewan. Two of the families – the Foleys who are part of our main extended family and the Trotters who play a very small role in this book – have appeared in Coe’s previous novels and, indeed, he tells us in the afterword that the Foleys may well appear again in future works.

There are a few running themes in this book, in addition to the family one.There are seven key events, which are the individual chapters, in that what happens in the chapters happens around these events. Four of them directly concern the British royal family and while the other three do not, the royal family plays a minor role in each one. Perhaps Coe should have waited for the key royal family event of this century – the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession to the throne of her son King Charles III.

While Coe’s characters do, to a great extent, celebrate, revere and even love the royal family (Mary’s husband Geoffrey only shows real grief not at the death of his parents but only at the death of Princess Diana), we also see dissenting voices. King George VI is mocked for his stammer when giving his speech on VE day while, later on, we meet, briefly, various people opposed to the monarchy. However, for Coe it seems, with a certain amount of justification whatever your views on the monarchy, that key events in British (or, perhaps more accurately, English history) have often involved the monarchy.

Another theme is racism. The book focusses on the English as our extended family is mainly English. However there are two other nationalities that play a role. The first is Germany. While the VE Day celebrations in this book barely touch on the Germans – the Japanese get as much mention – one German does play a role in the celebrations. He is Carl Schmidt, born German but naturalised British. Unlike other Germans (the royal family, for example) he has not anglicised his name (e.g. to Charles Smith) but kept his German name. If he has problems with it during the war, we do not hear about them. However he does have problems with it on VE Day when a local thug, on hearing his name and accent, attacks him with a bottle.

It will be another twenty-one years before the next Anglo-German episode occurs. Mary has married Geoffrey, Carl’s grandson, and they have three boys. Their German cousins visit England for the first time that we know of, to attend the World Cup in 1966, played in England. The Germans are confident that Germany will win, the English less confident that England will win. However there are clashes between the two sets of cousins not only over football but over the relative quality of their national chocolate and over the war, resulting in a fight.

The other nationality that plays a role is the Welsh. The families visit Wales for a holiday and two of the cousins – Peter Lamb and David Foley – become friendly with Sioned, daughter of the owner of the farm where they are staying. That too ends badly when Sioned shows her bitterness (and that of her family) regarding the English treatment of the Welsh including the Investiture of the Prince of Wales and flooding Welsh villages for a reservoir for water for England. Welsh nationalism will appear again.

There are other examples of racism such as Geoffrey complaining that there are too many coloureds on the streets of London, racism towards various nationalities at the World Cup, Irish jokes and Geoffrey’s reaction to one of his sons having a black girlfriend.

A further theme is the change in technology. The King’s speech on VE Day is listened to on the radio but subsequent events are watched on TV and the TVs of course improve over the years. It is the very conservative (and Conservative) Geoffrey who is surprisingly most interested in technology, for example having a personal computer before his sons.

There are two sub-themes, sub in that they only appear later in the book. The first is the UK’s relationship with the EEC/EU, which is not always positive as we know. The second is related to the EEC/EU and is the rise of a journalist who made his name writing about the EU, Boris Johnson. Coe wittily says in the afterword As for the tousled-haired ‘Boris’ who first appears in the Brussels section, even though he might, of course, seem familiar to some readers, whether he’s a fictional character or not remains hard to determine with any certainty. Perhaps fortunately, Coe finished this book well before the defenestration of Johnson and the appearance of the much worse Liz Truss.

Plot? Yes there is a sort of a plot and it involves our extended family. Mary is the star and we follow her from her witnessing the attack on Carl Schmidt up to almost the present day and the covid pandemic. She is dynamic, sensible, well-loved and a good mother and fairly good wife with a difficult husband. She nearly does not marry Geoffrey but does do so. They have three very different boys: Jack who is right-wing and full of himself, Martin unsure of himself, who works for Cadbury’s and is involved with the EU (another sub-theme is how the EU does not consider British chocolate to be real chocolate) and Peter, a professional violinist and the more sensitive of the three. Lorna, Martin’s daughter, is also a musician. David Foley, their cousin plays a role later in the book.

Coe seems to be saying that, on the one hand, tradition has won again. And so it will always be. England doesn’t change. but, on the other, it does change, led by changes in technology, changes in social mores, more acceptance of other races, the EU and, finally, major events like covid. Indeed, he concludes Everything changes, and everything stays the same, which I can more or less agree with. This is certainly a most worthwhile state of the nation book.

Was this review helpful?

I have very mixed feelings about this particular book. Whilst I did not really enjoy it as a novel, I found the history of the chocolate factory and the idyllic village really interesting. However those parts were like a history book rather than a novel. I honestly can't understand why it's listed as being "wickedly funny". Fairly large parts of the book are filled with word-for-word copies of famous speeches, from the likes of Winston Churchill. To me this was a bit like when a teacher tells you to write an essay of x number of words and you sit there wondering how you can pad it out without too much effort. I also found it was just too bogged down in politics. Not an author for me I'm afraid. Apologies! My sincere thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy in exchange for an honest unbiased review.

Was this review helpful?

Bournville follows the fortunes of members of a Midlands family, their friends, colleagues, partners, and neighbours through seven key occasions of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jonathan Coe writes well and I've enjoyed some of his earlier novels, but I had mixed feelings about the structure of this one and the way history was dealt with, especially as some segments felt like I'd suddenly started reading a narrative history (i.e. non-fiction), which was jarring. The book hit its stride in the second half and dealt well with some of the elements of life during the Covid lockdowns that have now passed but which were such a huge part of life at that time. The ending was emotional and clearly deeply personal.

Was this review helpful?

I love Jonathon Coe’s writing – it’s always clever and witty, it’s often inciteful and thought-provoking, and, at its best, it’s also warm and captivating. His latest novel paints a portrait of Britain told through four generations of one family. Coe delivers a clever state of the nation novel wrapped up in the human stories of a family saga, structured around some of the momentous events of the past 80 years such as VE Day, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, James Bond, the 1966 World Cup, Princess Diana’s death, Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
And, as we journey through 80 years of social and cultural change Coe expertly explores shifting attitudes to race, sexuality, and our relationship with Europe. Do I have some reservations? A few – There’s some fascinating social history but for me, it sometimes felt a little too much like a history book and I found myself skimming over some of the long verbatim speeches. And while Coe’s writing is always brilliant, I found this novel, on balance, more sad and angry than witty and warm – but I guess that’s understandable with the way things are right now! I’m really glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to others, but – probably like the author – I’m longing for better times.

Was this review helpful?

I was glad to be given the opportunity to read this book because of my personal history with Bournville. My mum was born and bought up in Bournville Lane and the area has been hugely important to me my whole life - my Aunt, who died this year, lived almost her entire life within a 1 mile radius of her family home. I was looking for a glimpse into the past...and I have been left feeling a bit disappointed.

There are sections of this book that read like a history book - there is an extensive history of Cadbury's and how the factory and surrounding village came into being. This is teamed with extensive histories about each of the events that this story is told through,

Starting with the dawn of the pandemic is 2020 and then looping back to the end of the Second World War, we meet different generations of the same family all linked by the history and attachment to Bournville and Birmingham. Beginning with Mary, as a 12 year old living in Birch Road, she is the character that ties the generations together throughout the story. We visit her teenage years, her late twenties, Forties, Sixties and Eighties all told against the backdrop of the big events of the times - the silver jubilee, the marriage of Charles and Diana, Diana's death and funeral and the pandemic are just some of the events that this novel spans.

I don't understand how it could be described as 'wickedly funny' as I didn't find it funny at all. A touch too political for me too.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC in exchange for the honest review.

Was this review helpful?

I have read all of Jonathan Coe’s novels and always look forward to them. I was looking forward to this one and was not disappointed.

In Bournville he returns to familiar territory – twice over. He covers the growth and relationships of a family (familiar to anyone who has read What a Carve Up! And this Benjamin Trotter trilogy), firmly embedding it in an historical milieu (see Expo 56, The Rotters Club).

This is a cleverly structured book using historical events from VE Day to the pandemic as the focus for each chapter and also the back drop for a family saga that starts in the industrial village Bournville, built by chocolate manufacturer Cadbury for its workers. As always, Coe conjures up a warmth and fairness towards his characters with whom his readers will form a close bond.

My only criticism of this novel is that it is prone sometimes to dumps of historical information which can feel a bit superfluous to requirements. Coe is at his best when he takes one thing and uses it as a key to unlock a whole host of memories. I had forgotten all about the endless wranglings of the EU/EC/EEC/Common Market until Coe’s sly and very funny write up of a report of a meeting about chocolate.

Sometimes, the anti-Brexit, anti-Conservative jabs are a bit heavy handed, (these were also a feature of Middle England), especially the appearance of Boris Johnson when he was a journalist, but I suppose they serve the purpose of showing how events quite quickly become the past and then history. This is also shown by his treatment of the pandemic. Although this is barely even the past yet, I was quite shocked at how extraordinary it already seemed, reading it as the background to a piece of fiction.

Also - I hope in the printed edition there is a family tree at the front of the novel, it did get a bit confusing in places as the family grew!

This is a highly readable, very enjoyable yet also very thoughtful novel by one of our quietly great novelists.

Was this review helpful?

Coe returns to what he does best: Birmingham, families and the passing of the decades. It gets a little confusing at times, with its zipping back and forth and its large cast of characters, and it's not up there with The Rotters Club, but for Coe addicts (of which I'm one) it's a marvellous read. More please.

Was this review helpful?

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.

Was this review helpful?

What I always look forward to in a new book from this author is the fact that he is a brilliant storyteller. This book continues the excellent work.
The story starts as the covid pandemic is about to infect the world. Lorna is a double bass player in a jazz duo. She is the grandaughter of Mary who most of this story is about. Lorna and her fellow musician the guitarist Mark have gigs booked in Vienna and some German cities, on a six day tour. They manage tp perform at five of the six venues, but the last one is cancelled because of covid. Before flying home Lorna skypes her grandmother who suggest she researches her German roots.
The story now goes back to VE day 1945. The book takes seven events over the years up to the present day. It follows Mary who at the start is a young girl. They live in the Quaker village of Bournville in Birmingham West Midlands. This has been set up by the Cadbury chocolate company.
We follow Mary and her family through weddings, childbirth and deaths Mary gets married to the safe Geoffrey but often wonders what would have happened if she succumbed to the exciting angry young man Kenneth. Always interesting, often amusing. Besides covid, brexit is covered and the chocolate war in europe!
Another brilliant book that will be read again and again, like all of the author's books. Very definitely highly recommended.

Was this review helpful?

Great account of social history, but I didn’t understand the direction of the book and thought a social history of Bournville itself would’ve been better, or a family history with Cadbury chocolate woven through it.

Was this review helpful?

This book did not engage me one bit. I appreciate the appeal to others but it is not for me. The novel covers different decades - we start just before the pandemic and then different chapters cover the 1940's, the 1970's and so on. I did not warm to the characters but I realise others might love this novel. Read it and decide for yourself

Was this review helpful?

Thanks for approving me for this! I found this a really enjoyable read & a fascinating look at the country’s major historical moments from the people who ‘lived them’. As a fan of The Crown I particularly enjoyed the format of this book and although many of these were (supposedly) celebratory occasions, I particularly enjoyed Coe’s underlying cynicism & anger, as always.

Was this review helpful?

One ordinary family at key events in modern British history.

This was fascinating. I loved revisiting the Lambs over a 60year span as they aged, their family changed and grew, they argued and discussed the events going on around them. We see events we've all either lived through or know about, almost by osmosis in some cases - the Coronation of Elizabeth II, the World Cup win, Diana's death, VE Day anniversary in the midst of COVID lockdowns.

But now we see it, almost Gogglebox-like, from the perspective of one multi-generational family. As some of them age and a new generation take over, we get new views and insights and reminders of our own shared pasts and how we are all connected through them.

Mary Lamb is key to the family, the matriarch, and it begins with her making decisions that will affect her whole life thereafter. Though I was not there (by many decades), I could picture the events of her youth, the coronation felt very well visually described, it felt well-researched with small details that made it realistic and easy to imagine.

Her family grows to include key figures that exemplify issues regarding race and sexuality, we see snatches of love stories and marriages over time, aging, death, families and various occupations. The Lambs from the middle of England could well be that typical British family of the era.

Only a few of the family become our focus, our voices on the past. A few times I got a little confused with names and had to work to remember the relationships and who people were to whom, but this usually became clear quite quickly, even when moving forward in time.

The story comes full swing with references at the end to events at the start of the story, and I found the whole thing nostalgic, moving and engrossing.

Loved Middle England, and this is in a similar vein, will stir memories.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing an advance reading copy.

Was this review helpful?

I have very mixed feelings about this book, I enjoyed Jonathon Coe's writing and the characters who allowed the narrative to be told. I think that was also the problem though in that, although it was an interesting social history of the last 80+ years of the UK, the author did seem to rely very heavily on printing verbatim speeches from relevant times eg Churchill and the coronation, and this felt a bit lazy and like reading a textbook.
3 1/2 stars rounded up to 4
Thank you to netgalley and Penguin Books for an advance copy of this book.

Was this review helpful?

Reading for pleasure serves many purposes - to escape and distract from reality being my main one. But sometimes it's also good to read fiction set closer to home (in both location and time period), to reflect on and better understand my real life. 'Bournville' is a book in the latter category, a tour de force novel about ordinary British folk over 70 odd years, starting with VE day and ending in 2020. I've read many of Coe's novels, some of which I've liked and others I've strongly disliked, but in my opinion this is his best yet.

The story revolves around an ordinary family from the suburb of Bournville in Birmingham, UK. The story starts in 2020, where the pandemic is just starting to take hold, then goes back to VE day, and onwards through the decades with each chapter set at a significant time in British history. The 1966 world cup final, for example, the silver jubilee, the wedding of Prince Charles, the funeral of Diana, and so on. The novel is loosely linked to some of Coe's other works through shared characters but I'd actually forgotten the characters appeared in other books and certainly there is no need to have read them to enjoy this one, or any spoilers for them.

It's effectively a social history of Britain, presented as an entertaining and well written novel. Over the book, attitudes are seen to change - although not always everywhere, or enough. I think Coe is trying to present the different faces of our polarised political world in 2020s UK and how we reached that point. The matriarch character, Mary, has three sons - one a bombastic, optimistic Tory, one a steady, middle-of-the-road type, and one a socialist. Whilst it's possibly quite unlikely a family would have given rise to three such neatly categorised sets of views, it doesn't really strike you whilst reading as it's all written so well. Through these characters we see some of the differences that develop in outlook between different groups. But in all honesty I still can't understand or see the viewpoint of the 'other side' from my own, even when I read things that try to neutrally present their case.

Coe is able to write very amusingly and also is astute at capturing atmosphere and feelings. His descriptions of the general mood and how it felt as we were entering the pandemic are the best I've read yet (and plenty of authors have tried already). He also avoids any of the absurdist or supernatural turns that he sometimes puts into his books (never to their advantage in my experience). It's just a good, solid and very readable story about people who could be real, living through historical events that are real and many readers living in the UK at the time will remember. Fans of his early novel 'The Rotters' Club' will be sure to enjoy it I think as it's a similar style (there's even a peripheral mention of characters from that book).

I'd highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in reading a novel set in 20th and early 21st century Britain about ordinary people. It's an enjoyable read, often funny and insightful. Coe writes at the end that he based the character of Mary on his own mother - I think he did her proud.

Was this review helpful?

I love Jonathan Coe because he manages to transport you completely to a time and place, and do it so accurately. When he writes about times I remember I read with delight at everything he manages to remind me of. His skill is not to make his descriptions look like they are researched or shoehorned into the plot. His books are time travel to interesting places.
His latest, Bourneville, is “a novel in seven occasions” seven memorable occasions, touchstones in modern British history. He starts with a prologue set in 2020 at that uncertain start to the pandemic when we didn’t quite comprehend what was happening and what was coming. I’m not ready for a pandemic book yet, but the short chapter captured the atmosphere of March 2020 beautifully. We then start the book on VE day seen through the eyes of eleven years old Mary. The detail in every paragraph is rich, full technicolour surround sound cinematography.
Being taken back to times “before my time” and times I remember well was a true pleasure. It’s really what books are for.

Was this review helpful?