While reading Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, one question kept coming to mind. Why don’t we host more world fairs, because these things are amazing!
Expo 58 is about the Brussels World Fair held in 1958 with the intention of bringing the world back together in peace after two devastating world wars. World politics are still not at ease as the US and Russia are constantly investigating each other and are battling to be on the forefront of nuclear technology. Thomas Foley is a civil servant from Tooting who writes British propaganda for a living, when he gets send to Expo 58 to oversee the British Pavilion. He leaves his wife and newborn daughter at home and exchanges the streets of London for every other country in the world. The descriptions of the Expo site are great. Coe put a lot of work in getting the details right, studying the original Expo 58 for his backdrop. And to me this was where the book got interesting. Coe describes the different pavilions in great detail, mostly lingering on the British side of things, because that is where the story takes place. But the idea that all these different countries come together and make a small site completely their own so they can share their culture with each other is just marvelous. I can’t wait to step outside and visit The Britannia, the English Pub where Foley spends most his time, or to step into an all-American household to learn about these vacuum cleaners that are all the rage.
All this merriment and sharing of culture and knowledge is at the same time shrouded by deceit and strife. Even before Foley sets foot in Brussels, he is apprehended by the British Special Services. Mr. Radford and Mr. Wayne pop up at the most unexpected times to give Foley some strange assignment in the name of world safety and then pop out again with the words ‘This conversation never took place’. The secret service duo was definitely the most comical part about the book. The dry British humor of Coe is a lot of fun and the characters he creates are quirky without being overdone.
Although the story is one of spies and secret agents, it’s not at all glamorous or exciting. Don’t expect a spy thriller that will keep you at the edge of your seat. The story mostly slowly moves along, following Foley from his boring, settled life in London to the excitement of the world fair and the allure of young and pretty Belgian ladies. He is a simple man, one that wants to be part of the international world, but tries his hardest not to get involved in world politics. Expo 58 is fun and very interesting as a look into the recent past and does a superb job at making you wish you were there.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher HMH New Harvest.