An upstanding British civil servant’s life is upended during the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.
There is an extraordinary amount of complexity and homage present in this rip-roaringly funny satire by Coe (The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, 2011, etc.), so much so that even readers with the most observant eyes for detail may miss a few marks. No matter, because in placing an obscure character in the circus that was Expo 58, the author manages to pull off the fascinating trick of portraying high comedy while being absolutely faithful to its extraordinary setting. Coe’s Everyman protagonist is Thomas Foley, who first appeared as a tangential character in the earlier novel The Rain Before It Falls (2008). Here, Foley is an upstanding civil servant and dedicated if somewhat distractible family man. His superiors at the Ministry of Information are in a tizzy over the impending World’s Fair, debating furiously whether a history of the British water closet is appropriate fodder. Foley is tasked to repair to Brussels for six months to oversee the Brittania, a modern-ish pub meant to be the jewel of England’s pavilion. Drawing its tone from the broad comedy of the 1950s and its heart from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 comic thriller The Lady Vanishes, the novel captures with lighthearted glee that extraordinary moment when Great Britain is caught between the stiff upper lip of postwar survivors and the swinging ’60s that still lie ahead. Coe lays trap after trap in front of Foley, among them a beautiful Flemish hostess and a very funny pair of bickering British spooks who fall in the tradition of Thomson and Thomson from Herge’s The Adventures of Tintin. For all the book's inherent humor (e.g. the American and Russian pavilions are parked back to back for Europe’s amusement), Coe is extraordinarily faithful to the time and place of his elegant farce, describing the Atomium with an almost poetic sense of wonder and idealism.
A decidedly British comic adventure that lovingly captures a long-lost age.