Jonathan Coe’s artful, comedic novels have dealt with the recent British past: the 1980s in What a Carve Up!, the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club, and the turn of the millennium in its sequel, The Closed Circle. Expo 58 takes a step further back and afield: the British presence at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. The results are, to borrow a phrase from Coe’s parodic vernacular, top notch. An intensely visual novel, Expo 58 relies on the reader’s knowledge of British and European cinema of the period to create a world of slapstick and surrealism. Thus we have the buffoons of the upper echelons of the civil service and the resilient young hero of Ealing comedies (Coe references Dirk Bogarde here, but I had a composite of Alec Guinness, Ian Carmichael and Kenneth More in my head). Alongside this, Jacques Tati’s antic approach is suggested in the absurdist world of espionage into which the narrative strays, as overweight spies squeeze into Volkswagen Beetles or tumble from skylights, and mysterious hands appear to offer umbrellas to would-be lovers in the rain.
Coe’s focus is Thomas, a hardworking copywriter from the Central Office of Information. Sent to Brussels on the comic assumption that, with a landlord father and a Belgian mother, he will be perfectly suited to overseeing the iconic Britannia pub at the Fair, Thomas is quickly in trouble. Anneke, the