Bournville by Jonathan Coe - review by J S Barnes

J S Barnes

Second City Saga



Viking 354pp £20

As a tutor in creative writing, I am often approached by would-be novelists who intend to base a story on some element of their family history. On such occasions, I try to be respectful while also suggesting gently that what is fascinating to the aspiring writer may not carry quite the same charge of interest to those who do not share their DNA.

Jonathan Coe – author of more than a dozen lauded novels – is far from being a neophyte, but one wonders whether someone at his publisher ought not to have made a similar point. They have done his reputation few favours by publishing his new book, Bournville.

The novel’s heroine is Mary Lamb, whom we first meet as an eleven-year-old in 1945 and whose eventual death we witness in 2020. She is not always the focus of the narrative, however. Coe is unafraid of shifting the point of view, meaning that we get to see at close quarters not only Mary herself but also many members of her family, from her complicated husband to her closeted son to her musician granddaughter. As the title suggests, much of the action is concentrated in the Birmingham suburb of Bournville. We watch the lives of Mary and the rest scroll by against a backdrop of national events – V-E Day, the 1966 World Cup, the death of the Princess of Wales and so on.

Coe has based Mary on his own mother, and it should be stated that the section which deals with her death (narrated in the first person by one of her sons) is profoundly moving, filled with righteous anger at its circumstances: in the midst of lockdown, the final

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