cover image Expo 58

Expo 58

Jonathan Coe. Little A/New Harvest, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-544-34376-4

Thomas Foley, the hero of this small-scale but impressive novel about the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, is the quintessential English everyman. Middle-class and middlebrow, he lives in a London suburb with his wife, Sylvia, and their baby daughter while quietly plying his trade as a mid-level functionary for Britain’s Central Office for Information. He is honored when his bosses tap him to manage the Britannia, an “authentic English pub” planned as part of the official British presence at the fair. The job requires him to be in Belgium for several months, and the sojourn is utterly life-changing. The plot mixes romance (with beautiful Belgian hostess Anneke) and decidedly comic intrigue (two bumbling British spies, Wayne and Radford, and an equally transparent Soviet agent). Coe is a gifted satirist (The Winshaw Legacy: or What a Carve Up!), and he subtly works in big themes here: Britain trying to finds its place in the postwar European landscape, and Britons trying to find their place in the postwar British class system. Coe uses period detail and historical fact smoothly, and the result is a droll, clever novel that ends on a bittersweet note. (Sept.)