Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe (Viking)

by Patrick O'Connor

 

THIS fictionalised account of the British involvement in the Expo or World Fair exhibition hosted by Belgium in 1958 is a deliciously witty 'espionage' novel which also pokes fun on how the British view themselves.

The main character is nondescript civil servant Thomas Foley, who is seconded to Belgium for six months to oversee a mock English pub called The Britannia in the British Pavilion.

He seems to have been chosen mainly because his father used to run a pub and his mother is Belgian although he is not supposed to have any direct involvement in the running of The Britannia.

Foley, who is married with a small daughter, finds his introduction to Belgium a rather unsettling one, in the shape of attractive Expo 58 hostess Anneke who meets him at the airport.

She is the first of a host of interesting characters who make Foley realise that mingling with sophisticated Europeans is a far cry from the suburban boredom of married life in Leatherhead, Surrey.

There's the Russian journalist Andrey, who may or may not be with the KGB, the glamorous American 'actress' Emily who is trying to sell Hoovers to the Russians, and the mysterious pair of Foreign Office types called Radford and Wayne who keep popping up and hint at all sorts of shady goings-on behind the stands and exhibits.

The author paints a vivid picture of late 50s Britain and how uncomfortable Brits felt when mixing with their European neighbours. The tale also hints at what is to follow with the swinging 60s just around the corner.

Poor Foley seems like a lost soul and is never quite sure if people are who they say they are. Before he knows what's happening, he is drawn into the complex world of spies and dubious motives which Coe amusingly litters with references to Hitchcock films and James Bond novels.