Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. Published in the Exhibition Study Group Journal No.117, p18-19, Summer 2015.


Jonathan Coe

Penguin, 2013, paperback 2014.

A Book Review by Matthew Denney

For the Exhibition Study Group

Many of you will have noticed this book in your local bookshop window recently, I am sure the title will have sparked an interest as will the glimpse of the Atomium on the cover of the paper back. Jonathan Coe is a very successful author whose best-known work to date is probably ‘What a Carve Up!’ his high profile and popularity have led to this book having been reviewed in every major newspaper and journal – so it seems only reasonable to include a review in our journal whose readers will already be familiar with the historic location for this comic tale.

This is a short novel that blends history and fiction, it is primarily a comic novel in the great tradition of inter-war comic novels with familiarly drawn characters with plenty of ‘Absolutely, old man’  ‘Tickety-boo’ and ‘We British are mace of stern stuff’, no doubt uttered by bowler-hatted trench coat wearing gents of the best kind. There is spying, romance and intrigue at home and in Brussels. James Gardner is convincingly portrayed as a slightly troublesome and worrying left-leaning ‘character’ and much of the action takes place in the Britannia Pub which formed part of the British Pavilion with much international interest in the ‘Zeta’ machine, an exhibit at the exhibition that purported to show British scientists achievments in the field of nuclear fusion.

With KGB spies disguised as journalists and GPO engineers asking too many questions the book moves along at an entertaining pace with humour which I found to be of the ‘gentle’ kind rather of the ‘laugh out loud variety’. The period details are well portrayed and Coe paints a convincing picture of  ’58 as seen through the eyes of a slightly nieve and impressionable young man coming to terms with marriage and fatherhood left at home alongside attractive and engaging Belgian women working at the Expo.

Expo 58 fits into a currently fashionable genre of literature that takes historic events and blurs fact with fiction by weaving fictional characters into the period and using the events of history to create the necessary drama. In this respect the exhibition is an excellent basis for Coe’s work and it is possible that we will see more authors taking advantage of the many exhibitions held over the years that might provide a good background for romance, murder, intrigue or whatever else the author might imagine.

The Festival of Britain appears in two novels that I know of –‘Dance and Skylark’ by John Moore and ‘Festival at Farbridge’ by JB Priestly, are there other novels featuring exhibitions, I am sure there must be, I would be delighted to hear of any that members of the Society might be familiar with.


Click here to visit my page on Expo58 and follow the links to a blog post on the Atomium.