Expo 58 – Review

‘Expo 58’ by Jonathan Coe

James Bond meets Tintin…

Brimming with the vibrance of the fifties, ‘Expo 58’ surrounds a multicultural event of the same name which took place in 1958. Hired in a supervisory role for the British presence in this international fair, Thomas Foley abandons his wife and daughter for this six month event to oversee the management at the British pub ‘The Britannia’ – which acts as the British exhibit in Brussels and is the central base of the novel.

Transported from his desk job as a civil servant in dull old Britain to the lively beauty of Brussels, Thomas immerses himself in the Belgian culture; the birth place of his mother.

The iconic Atomium symbolises everything Thomas expects and wants of his time in Brussels, a new modern era of international peace and an exciting future. Similarly ‘The Britannia’ pub is built with the forethought of pretending to the world that Britain is a proud country with the ability of moving forward without ever breaking links to the past.

Fraught with pretence, political intrigue and rivalling nations, Thomas is unwittingly swept into espionage by a stereotypical British double act, Wayne and Radford, a Thomson and Thompson like duo who finish each other sentences, insisting on performing monologues as a duet.

At home Thomas is surrounded by women (his mother, wife and daughter) and trapped by responsibility and duty. Abroad Thomas is still surrounded by women but now he is free and tempted by other attractive foreign women who all seek to use him for their various reasons, whether that be true affection or not.

Coe beautifully sets up a number of fruitful relationships that ultimately are not possible due to circumstance, making it frustrating but also frightfully realistic in terms of one having to own up to their responsibilities, doing what is expected of a family man.

As a protagonist Thomas is placid, an unassuming Englishman – polite and inclined to avoid conflict. Though wonderfully subverted at the end of the novel, the character remains an archetype of a 1950’s British man; insipid and not comfortably able to show any strong opinion.

The novel falls short of classification. Is it fiction incorporating historical fact? Is it thinly veiled espionage? Is it a politically motivated novel, intended to comment on the pretentious nature of international relations?

Wherever the book lies in terms of genre or intent, Coe has tenderly written an immersive piece of humorous fiction, with historical elements that are sensitively and accurately portrayed to capture a time where the world was naive in terms of technology.

As every English person does, Thomas resentfully returns home to his life as a husband and father – keeping to the unspoken promise of a British holiday: what happens abroad, stays abroad.
Luke Jonathon Fielding