EXPO 58, by Jonathan Coe

Review published on January 29, 2015. Reviewed by jj redfearn

EXPO 58 was Belgium’s last world fair, held on a site a few kilometres from central Brussels. The centrepiece was the Atomium, a 102 metre tall aluminium replica of an iron atom, around which nations vied with each other to build the most interesting, innovative and impressive pavilions and fill them with technology and art reflecting their cultures and capabilities. Britain built a futuristic pavilion looking like three concrete quartz crystals standing on-end together, and as its cultural contribution, a pub.

But 1958 was cold war time. When nations came together to exchange culture and science, spies circled like flies to pick-up defectors and their secrets. Enter Thomas Foley, an unambitious minor functionary at the Central Office of Information in a dull job, living in a drab house in Tooting with his bored overstressed wife and his newish baby daughter, for whom the most excitement came the day they went to the pictures to see, well not Peyton Place but a compromise that neither of them was particularly bothered with.

Go over there for six months and oversee the pub will you Thomas. Your father was a landlord, your mother was Belgian, you’ll be a natural. Thomas was a teeny bit naive so took everything at face value, the job, his selection for it, even the Thompson twins lookalikes (Radford and Wayne) who not so surreptitiously vetted him for soundness.

The story flows gently along, Thomas drifting awkwardly with it, through the excitement of 1950’s London and Brussels with their British, American and Russian spies and to Thomas performing his most difficult and successful action, which, it has to be said, he doesn’t know he’s performing or has performed until much later.

A gentle read with plenty of nostalgia in the unusual setting of the nearly forgotten Brussels world fair of 1958. I’d have liked it to have been longer, with more story-line set in the strange and esoteric world of London in the 1950s, but a five star book all the same.

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