I remember reading Sarah’s review of Bournville last year and thinking I must read that, but I forgot about it, until now. And I’m so glad I decided to read it. I devoured it like a bar of Dairy Milk, maybe not quite as quickly.
In Bournville, a placid suburb of Birmingham, sits a famous chocolate factory. For eleven-year-old Mary and her family in 1945, it’s the centre of the world. The reason their streets smell faintly of chocolate, the place where most of their friends and neighbours have worked for decades. Mary will go on to live through the Coronation and the World Cup final, royal weddings and royal funerals, Brexit and Covid-19. She’ll have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Parts of the chocolate factory will be transformed into a theme park, as modern life and the city crowd in on their peaceful enclave.
As we travel through seventy-five years of social change, from James Bond to Princess Diana, and from wartime nostalgia to the World Wide Web, one pressing question starts to emerge: will these changing times bring Mary’s family – and their country – closer together, or leave them more adrift and divided than ever before?
Bournville is a rich and poignant novel from the bestselling, Costa award-winning author of Middle England.It is the story of a woman, of a nation’s love affair with chocolate, of Britain itself.
My Review of Bournville by Jonathan Coe
I’ve not read Jonathan Coe before but I would like to now. I listened to this book on Audible and the narrators gave a lovely Brummie accent without being so strong that other Counties wouldn’t be able to follow along.
As someone who lives within a short distance from Bournville I really enjoyed listening about all the streets and places that are so familiar too me. I too have watch fireworks on Rowheath Park, although not on VE Day, I’m not as old as Mary.
The book follows Mary from 11 years old but it also follows her son’s stories. Rather than a completely linear story, which would make it very long, it focuses on certain events throughout history like VE Day, The Queen’s Coronation, The World Cup Final of 1966, The Investiture of the Princess of Wales and the Marriage of Charles and Diana, Then the funeral of Diana and finally Covid and the 75th Anniversary of VE Day.
Just like the world has seen a lot of change in these decades, I’ve seen a lot of changes in Bournville. You can definitely smell the difference, I used to sometimes catch the smell of chocolate on the breeze but these days most of the chocolate is not even made in the factory. I remember when Cadbury World was built, but it took me 30 years to go and visit it for the first time. I have visited a few times and been on one of those bean pods on a very surreal ride. Want proof?
Back to the story, I think Jonathan Coe manages to fit a lot in, keep the story flowing and give us a real feel of life over the decades in a small Birmingham Subarb (and sometimes further afield)
I found the ending quite sad but poignant and Jonathan Coe’s Author’s note at the end made me cry when he said that although the character’s were fictional, Mary was based on his own Mum. I do love his one note “As for the tousled hair Boris who first appears in the Brussel’s section, even though he might, of course, seem familiar to some readers, whether he is a fictional character or not remains hard to determine with any certainty”
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this story mainly because it was really relatable to me, but also because it was a lovely journey through the times of Britain and history of Bournville.
I can’t leave without an image taken just before Christmas last year of the place where Mary was most likely to have sat in the last chapter. With the shops to the left and the carillon to right. And if you ever go to Bournville to visit Cadbury world on a Saturday, do listen out for the Carillon which is a most amazing instrument.