Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe

20256745All the world is coming to Brussels for the World’s Fair, beginning in the spring of 1958. Thomas Foley is coming because his bosses at the Central Office of Information think he’ll be a natural at overseeing the replica British pub in the British Pavilion, because his mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub. This is just the first of many bewildering things that happen to Thomas in Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58.

Thomas’s role is never very clearly defined. The man in charge of the day-to-day at the Britannia is a veteran barman. Shirley Knott (yeah, you read that right) is perfectly capable of running things when Mr. Rossiter is soused (constantly). Mostly, Thomas spends his time in the company of a Belgian hostess named Anneke.

Because it’s 1958, the Expo is also a hot bed of clandestine activity. The organizers have amusingly put the US and USSR pavilions right next door to each other. Everyone is spying on each other. Through absolutely no effort of his own, Thomas is approached by a KGB official and bunks with a scientist working on the ZETA project. Thomas is roped in by British secret services when it appears that the KGB agent might be about to run away to Moscow with the daughter of a prominent American scientist. A man with a gun stuffs him into a Volkswagen Beetle for a rendezvous with the Secret Services. I’m not really supposed to quote from an advanced reader copy, but this is too funny (and illustrative of the tone of Expo 58) not to share:

‘What’s this?’ [Thomas asked.]
‘What do you think it is? It’s a blindfold. Now hold still while I tie it at the back.’
‘What the…?’
Remembering the presence of the gun, Thomas decided that protest, let alone resistance, was useless. He waited in silence for the blindfold to be tied firmly at the back of his head.
‘Right,’ said Wilkins, emphatically. ‘That should do. How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘Three,’ said Thomas.
‘God damn it to hell, how did you know that? Can you see through the cloth?’
‘No. It was a guess.’
‘Well you’re not supposed to guess. For crying out loud, I’m trying to make sure that you can’t see where we’re going. We’re not here to play guessing games. How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘I’ve no idea. I can’t see a bloody thing.’ (Location 1720*)

The very next day, Thomas gets his marching orders and his first “errand” for England: stop the potential elopement. (Hilariously, when Thomas tells his handlers about how Wilkins kidnapped him, they tut about the bad influence the books of a certain Mr. Fleming is having on the other men in the office.)

The second half of the book is full of Thomas attempts to foil Mr. Chersky’s romance. Unfortunately, this half isn’t as enjoyable as the set up. The ending in particular is a let down. I think I was expecting something as silly and madcap as the first half. In fact, the second half is downright melancholy as Thomas gets sucked deeper and deeper into the Great Game.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 September 2014.


* From the advanced reader’s copy for kindle, provided by the publisher.

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