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An Uneasy Entente Cordiale: on the Trail of Expo 58

 

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EXPO 58 by Jonathan Coe      Penguin     $23.95

As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d review something lighter and more amusing, in keeping with the forthcoming holiday season. Looking over my list this year, it’s been predominantly serious, with the exception of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which continues to do exceptionally well both in Australia and abroad.

Expo 58 was published earlier this year and is one of those books on my list to read for a while.  I hadn’t realised that Brussels had hosted an international exhibition in 1958. The Expo saw pavilions from all around the world erected to showcase the best of international design, art, and lifestyle.  Brussels’ famous Atomium was built to display contemporary engineering, science and creativity in the Exhibition Park. Mandarins, intellectuals and the media swarmed to Brussels to see what the post-war world had to offer.  With what’s described in the book as ‘an example of the Belgian sense of humour’, the US and Russian pavilions (remember, we’re at the height of the Cold War) nestled uncomfortably side by side in a public show of uneasy harmony.

Coe takes the Expo as a starting point for a farce on British mores and international relations. He blends elements of Ealing comedy and Le Carre (with more than a touch of David Lodge) to concoct an irresistible, fast-paced read that’s guaranteed to make you smile – if you appreciate an anglophile sense of the ridiculous.

Thomas is a lowly pen pusher in the Central Office of Information. He’s given the chance to escape his boring public service job and suburban marriage to travel to Brussels and be part of the British delegation at the Expo. His task is ostensibly to oversee the running of the Brittania, a replica of a British pub which takes pride of place near the British pavilion. However, he’s soon caught up in a network of hush-hush activity. Under the guise of camaraderie over a pint, the British, the Russians and the Americans are obviously spying on each other. Plus, there’s Anneke, the beautiful Flemish hostess, who soon captures his attention. Where, in more ways than one, do Thomas’ loyalties lie?

Reading this at a time when Indonesia and Australia are caught up in a “who spied on whom?” scandal, and the recent revelations of American and British phone tapping, Coe’s novel seems both prescient and topical. Plus ҫa change etc etc.  His novel doesn’t pretend to be anything more than lighthearted. And yet, it resonates with profound truths about Great Britain’s attitude to its neighbours  pre EU (usually condescending), a fact that’s particularly ironic considering Britain’s woeful state in 1958.

Having just emerged from rationing and a devastating war, Britain was struggling to get back on her feet. Riddled by a suffocating class system, insular, bridling with suspicion and prejudice against anything new and foreign, the country was stagnating. The liberation of the 60s was yet to occur. No wonder Thomas views a stint at the Expo as a chance to escape his stifling existence.  Here’s his (admittedly naïve) view of all the Expo has to offer, when he first arrives in Brussels: “Here for the next six months, would be thrown together all the nations whose complex relationships, whose conflicts and alliances, whose fraught, tangled histories, had shaped and would continue to shape the destiny of mankind.”

All this seems to be epitomised by the structure of the Atomium itself, which Coe describes as “this brilliant folly… a giant latticework of spheres, unperishable, interconnected, each one emblematic of that tiny mysterious unit man had so recently learned to divide and conquer: the atom. The very sight of it set his heart pounding”.

Of course, the novel is a gradual exploration of loss of innocence. And there are flashes of the real price countries had to pay after the Second World War. Here and there are reminiscences of villages pillaged, houses burned, friends deported, lives in ruin.  But the underpinning seriousness of the message is always deflated by farce and fun.

This is epitomised by the delicious cartoon characters, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford (we never learn their first names), two secret service men in black who recruit Thomas to the cause. With dialogue straight out of PG Wodehouse, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a penchant for tortuous language: “He had the sachet and the packet in the pocket of his jacket”, they’re a comedy duo, caricatured spies who come in from the cold with very English flair.

So if you’re lazing on a beach this summer digging into a raspberry Pav, or tucked up with a hot toddy and Christmas pud  and turkey leftovers near a blazing fire, Expo 58 is a good companion. Definitely recommended.

 


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Two Australian Fiction Debuts

rosieI

THE ROSIE PROJECT, BY GRAEME SIMSION

Published by: Text; $29.99

Everyone’s talking about Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Since its publication in February 2013, the book has had the international acclaim most first-time authors only dream about. Sold for nearly $2 million around the world, the film rights have just been purchased, and Simsion will write the screenplay. With so much hype, the question has to be asked: is it any good? Well, yes, it is. Really good.

Don is a professor of Genetics who cannot find a partner. This is not surprising, because for all his brilliance, he cannot empathise with people. Although it’s never stated, Don is either a high-functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He takes things at face value, finds it impossible to understand irony or relate to the subtleties of everyday social interaction and  communication. Not surprisingly, he has failed miserably in love, but as he wishes to find a mate and reproduce (his words), he decides to create a 16 page questionnaire to find the right woman. Into his orbit comes Rosie, who needs his help to locate her biological father. Beautiful, self-opiniated and independent, Rosie ticks few of the boxes in Don’s questionnaire. But will they still get together?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but I was chuckling audibly when reading this and getting some strange looks from commuters on the train (watch out for a hilarious scene with a laboratory skeleton). Films such as Rain Man and novels like Toni Jordan’s Addition and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  have  also focussed on heroes and heroines with disabilities. The reader immediately sympathises with them, despite their foibles and Don, for all his misguided views on life and love, is an endearing character.  The novel succeeds both as a delightful rom-com but also as an intelligent and perceptive narrative on the importance of compromise in personal relationships. Don and Rosie are both ultimately on a quest to find out who they are, and personal identity also means accepting the good and bad in those you love and the people you fall in love with.

Read it if you: enjoy well-written, fast-paced, feel-good comedy.

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BURIAL RITES, BY HANNAH KENT

Published by: Picador, $32.99

Hannah Kent has been mentored by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, which is reason enough to mark her as a writer to watch. Burial Rites won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and Kent is both a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University and co-founded the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.

This is a remarkable debut and heralds a strong and individual literary voice. Kent turns to Iceland in 1829 for the novel’s plot, which is based on the true story of a domestic servant, Agnes Magnusdottir, who was beheaded after she was found guilty of murdering two men. Kent divides the novel into two voices: that of Agnes remembering her past, and Toti Jonsson’s, a young pastor who is sent to help Agnes repent of her sins before her execution. The storyline therefore moves both backwards and forwards in time, creating a satisfying and unifying narrative arc.

Burial Rites is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: in this novel too, the story of a servant who committed murder two hundred years ago, slowly unravels under the watchful eye of a man who wishes her well. Like Alias Grace, Kent’s novel is a tense psychological drama that builds page by page to create a mesmerising portrait of Agnes. Kent doesn’t falter, and artfully combines the thrill of a who-dunit with the keen eye for detail demanded by historical fiction. She’s excellent at capturing the language and mood of  isolated communities, their archaic superstitions and malicious gossip.

Kent calls Burial Rites her “dark love letter to Iceland” and indeed Iceland’s bleak, desolate landscape with its wild weather is a character in its own right. Kent is marvellous at describing the dogged self-sufficiency and determination of the peasants for whom every day is a battle for survival. And even though we know Agnes’ fate from the start, it says a great deal for Kent’s authority as a writer, that we’re still shocked at Agnes’ execution as the book draws to a close. I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. Kent’s words linger.

Read it if you: enjoy literary and historical fiction, laced with a murder mystery and psychological drama.

What do you think? Drop me a line and listen to my book programme podcast, Page Turners on www.3mbs.org for more interviews and news on the world of books.