Book Review: ‘Expo 58’ by Jonathan Coe

Expo 58Atomium

Title: Expo 58

Author: Jonathan Coe (author blog)

Genre: Fiction (Political Farce)

Publisher: Viking Adult (Penguin)

Publication Date: 5th September 2013

Hardback: 288

Stand alone or Series? Stand alone

Why did I choose to read this book? I was attracted to this book after hearing Jonathan Coe do a reading at the Penguin Bloggers Party.

Where to read? Well unless you hop on the Eurostar and go and sit in Brussels to soak up the ‘Atomium’ for yourself I think the ‘Lowlander’ in Covent Garden, London would be a smart second choice.

Refreshments: Since it’s set in Brussles it really would be a travisty to not be drinking one of their many briliant beers. My first choice would be a ‘Jupiler’ and as a snacky side it would have to be traditional chips and REAL mayonnaise!


It’s London in 1958, her Majesty’s Government are outwardly celebrating the post-war prosperity yet still fearing the Red shadow and growing nuclear arms race. It is in this world we meet ordinary, civil servant Thomas Foley who is plucked from obscurity and his humdrum life to head The Britannia, a brand new pub which will form the heart of the British presence at Expo 58* – the biggest World Fair of the century.

But Thomas’s new-found joie de vivre is not all as it seems. Thomas finds himself at the centre of Cold War espionage. At once, followed everywhere by two mysterious British Secret service agents, infatuated by the lovely Emily and Anneke, and a suspicious amount of salt sachets, Thomas finds himself having to decide where his loyalties lie.

This novel had so much potential to be amazing but unfortunately it fell short. The blurb promised ‘Hitchokian Thriller’ and espionage however, in reality it lacked any real story line or depth of character, ping ponging rapidly without settling on a strong narrative. This might be Coe’s attempt to bring the sentiment of The Cold War into the very essence of his novel, vague and no action – but I soon lost interest.

The central protagonist is Thomas, he is going through a stereotypically early mid-life crisis. He dislikes his job and feels lumbered with wife and newly born daughter so when the opportunity for freedom becomes available he jumps at the chance. His character is one of a bumbling idiot caught between chasing after young women like a dog on heat and attempting to be a part-time spy. To be frank I found him an irritating and weak main character. In the same vein the peripheral characters were also nondescript apart from the elusive Mr Radford and Mr Wayne, who’s  double-act style dialogue was a breathe of entertaining air and reminded me somewhat randomly of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from James Bond’s ‘Diamonds are forever.’

On a positive note, I did enjoy Coe’s commitment to satirizing the terminology of the upper class voice and his team of old Etonians. The novel is subject to frequent use of ‘old man’ and references to each other using just their surname which provided much needed humour to the novel especially in the toilet scene – i’ll say no more.

Although Coe’s novel provided light entertainment it didn’t deliver what it said on the tin and lacked any of the promised thrills or suspense of Cold War espionage – saying that I will be visiting the Atomium so I guess he has inadvertently boosted tourism for Brussels.

* Expo 58, also known as Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles, was held from 17 April to 19 October 1958 and was the first major World Fair after the end of World War II. –more info

Rating: 5 out of 10 – disappointing


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