Tag Archives: Jonathan Coe

French Braid by Anne Tyler (Chatto, £16.99) and Bourneville by Jonathan Coe (Viking, £20)

Both of these books are intergenerational novels – family sagas if you like, by long-established writers, Tyler from America and Coe from the UK. Coe’s novels are often described as state of the nation novels, and he and we follow the lives of his chosen family down the generations, their lives punctuated by incidents in modern British history – VE Day in 1945, the Coronation of 1953, England’s 1966 World Cup win, Charles’ investiture, his wedding, the funeral of Diana and, finally the anniversary of VE Day, 75 years on.
Tyler starts in 1959 and American history is entirely absent. Her family is unaffected by, don’t talk about, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq… Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush one and Bush two, Clinton, Obama, Trump – who they? Mind you, they talk about next to nothing anyway when they meet up, save for whether the traffic on Baltimore’s Beltway is bad or really bad. Nor do they go out much or have a cultural life save for one son who teaches drama and acts. But he’s the outcast who never quite recovered from a childhood trauma when he thought his father did not love him, so he is allowed.
The one real life intrusion in Tyler’s book is Covid, where the – now retired – drama teacher takes in his grandson for a while, the child’s mother working flat out in the health service, and there are tender scenes as the child meets local children but keeps his distance, and is given the task of making masks to involve him in Covid protection. Coe’s book also ends with Covid and the book turns on this from an understated domestic history to a final section of absolute passion when the key character Mary Lamb’s experience of death during the Covid era mirrors that of Coe’s own mother. I shy away from reading Covid fiction, it’s still too raw, but these are the best sections of both books.
Unfortunately Jonathan Coe signals the changes in the state of our nation too well. Early on, in Bournville itself, people drive past a house with its curtains closed. The man who lives there had been caught cottaging, having sex with another man in a public toilet. You can guess that later this will be mirrored by a modern gay affair. This last is the only sex scene in Coe’s book, and it is well done. The family in question is all white… but you can feel the moment coming when one of the younger members of the family has a new girlfriend. People have not met her yet and he passes a photograph around. One person says she looks lovely and, really, you don’t have to wait until – was it Doris? – blurts out about her being Black, naturally in an uncomfortable way. Brexit is there of course… but the scene where a chocolate factory representative (Bournville, remember!) meets a smarmy Labour MP to talk about European trade issues to do with chocolate is overwritten.  I would not say that Labour is completely smarm-free, but this Labour MP… though Coe might have met him in real life. Must ask.
Domestically Anne Tyler’s family changes too. America in the 1950s gradually recedes; the family hardware store is taken over by a woman; the family becomes a little more diverse; the most boring character – an estate agent, naturally – goes to bore the socks off other realtors in their special place in hell; and along comes the gay man. He has kept his secret from the family, but when he is found out by accident he realises that the whole family knew anyway and were not bothered.
And Mercy Garrett, married to Robin, who we meet at the start of the book, gradually moves out. She takes up painting, rents a studio and ever-so-gradually-ever-so-slowly stops coming home. Again, everyone knows, but nobody really talks about it. Her hapless husband organises a fiftieth wedding anniversary party for the family. It’s grim, but not so grim as their other gatherings and Mercy and Robin spend the night together. It’s another tender moment, but in the morning she returns to the studio before breakfast.
Neither of these are the best of the author’s work. But I dug through my shelves to find Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the only survivor of a period in the early 1980s, when I was regularly reading her work. It’s a family saga set in Baltimore and I remember nothing of it. And I’ll read that again shortly.
Ross Bradshaw
Both books are currently only in hardback, French Braid is published in paperback on 16 March while Bournville comes out in paper in September. Email us on bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk