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Bournville by Jonathan Coe

A Helen’s Reads Review *****
Bournville follows four generations of one family, whose lives are shaped and influenced by the Birmingham suburb where they live, and the chocolate factory where some of them work. Throughout the decades the reader is hooked in as the fortunes of Sam, Doll, their daughter Mary and other family members play out. Over the chapters we see Mary grow and change from an 11 year old child, to a teenager, then a trainee PE teacher with two suitors, a busy working mum with three children, and finally an elderly widow and grandmother.
The characters are extremely well realised and as you follow them across the years you get to know them intimately – they become very real to the reader, and once you finish the novel you find yourself still thinking about them. Witnessing the sweep of the decades and the passing of Mary’s life lends a sense of poignancy to the novel, and a very real feeling of life’s brevity.
With its opening and closing chapters set in the 2020 lockdown, this novel is circular in its construction, and its events take place between VE Day on 8th May 1945 and its subsequent 75th anniversary in 2020, as well as other defining, landmark moments over this time period: the 1953 coronation; the 1966 World Cup final; the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales; the 1981 royal wedding; and the death of Princess Diana.
We also see how these 75 years have brought great social change which disunites and bewilders both the family and the nation, because this is far more than a highly engaging, well written family saga. Coe is a superb chronicler of – and commentator upon -modern social and political history. Here he explores Great Britain’s relationship with Europe; attitudes towards the Royal Family; and the development of the European Union, its operation and legislation. Ultimately, Coe charts the rise and rise of Boris and the road to Brexit, both of which clearly bewilder, anger and frustrate him, and the reader is also prompted to consider the wisdom of the choices made.
Despite the socio-political history and commentary, Coe’s skilful authorial touch ensures that this novel is never dry, dull, polemic.  It is always an engaging story, and one which has a tremendous heart, humanity, emotion, and humour. The last section of the novel is especially moving because it is based on Coe’s experience of his own mother’s death during the pandemic.
There is also much love shown for Bond films, and of course, inevitably, chocolate!
This is a really well-written, captivating and enjoyable novel, which I would definitely recommend. I enjoyed it very much.
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Helen of Helen’s Reads is an English Literature graduate and a professional librarian with over 30 years’ experience of promoting books, reading, and engaging with readers. As well as being an avid reader she has an equal passion for chocolate and for cake, so it’s rather fortunate that she also enjoys walking the fells and footpaths of Cumbria as an antidote to all those calories!

All Helen’s reviews are unpaid, unprompted, and honest, and are of books she has purchased herself, borrowed from the library or received as proof copies from publishers. You can read more of her bookish thoughts on Goodreads at  and follow her on Instagram @hels_t_reads