Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Most people who read George Orwell’s most famous novels Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm will not then normally venture into his other lesser known novels. While Coming Up for Air does not have the dystopian impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four it is still a novel that works extremely well and it’s a shame that it is often overlooked.

The plot is very simple; George Bowling is a fat, forty five year old man who looks around at his life and wonders just how did he get here? After winning some money which he conceals from his wife, Bowling decides to use it to take a trip down memory lane and revisit his old childhood town.

"It must have been in 1930 that I got fat. It happened so suddenly that it was as if a cannon ball had hit me and got stuck inside. You know how it is. One night you go to bed, still feeling more or less young, with an eye for the girls and so forth, and next morning you wake up in the full consciousness that you're just a poor old fatty with nothing ahead of you this side the grave except sweating your guts out to buy boots for the kids."

The narrative mostly contains Bowling's own observations on his boyhood and British life during the 1930s as he tries to cope with the impeding threat of the Second World War and the changing world he finds himself in. The narrator himself stops the novel slipping into a rose-tinted haze by not being altogether likeable and yet despite this he is very ordinary, if doomed and beaten.

This might all sound thoroughly depressing but it contains some wonderful humour (very cynical humour) as Bowling's gives his observations in his wry way.

“When a woman's bumped off, her husband is always the first suspect--which
gives you a little side-glimpse of what people really think about marriage."

His childhood is looked back on with nostalgia which only causes disappointment when he does finally make his way back to his home town. This novel was published in 1939 but how many of us now can go back to a childhood town and think that everything seems so much smaller and see that the small business where you brought your sweets from has been taken over by a large chain-store? Everything changes including towns and cities and Bowling is uneasy and scared about it, by going back to his youth he believes he can once again be free to breathe.

Coming Up for Air is a real treat and even if you haven’t given Orwell a try before I recommend this.

"Is it gone forever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you."

Posted by Jess


  1. I reviewed this one a few months ago and really liked it. Who knew Orwell could be rather funny?

  2. This sounds similar to his more biographical essays, which I love. Having read a bit more of him the last couple of years I now thing Animal Farm and 1984 are a bit weaker than the rest of his work.

    You mention how small his childhood home seemed. Mark Twain once said that each time he revisited his childhood home it was smaller than the time before. He said he fully expected to one day return to his childhood home and find a doll house.

  3. Sounds great. I'm not familiar with any of his lesser-known works, but I picked up a cheap copy of a book about a mining town, and this looks really good.

    Great review, love the quotes.

  4. I've read three of Orwell's novels - the two that everyone's read, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I like his writing, though I tend to have issues with his endings. They always feel abrupt, almost as if he shortchanged himself or didn't know quite how to end the books. When I first read Aspidistra, I didn't like it much, but now that it's been about 9 years and I'm older, I think I like it more. I should reread it.

  5. Haven't read Orwell since high school, and this sounds like a good place to begin again. Need to try his essays, too...

  6. I think this is his funniest novel as you have shown with your quotes, it is a shame it is not read as often as his more well known novels.

  7. This sounds wonderful, I'm adding it to my wishlist. I also really enjoyed Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London.

  8. Ti-thanks for letting me know about yur review - I have just commented on it!

    CB.James - haha I love that, and its totally true. I'm going to read more as TBH I did think that Orwell was just abit depressing and dystopian. I think I'm going to read some more of his lesser known works to start.

    Toni - the quotes are very typical of the book overall so if you like those you would proberly like the book.

    Amanda - this one ended really abruptly now you mention it but I think in this case it suited it (plue it was also funny in a way) I cant comment on the others though.

    Joann - I had no idea he had loads of essays published. I didnt get to read Orwell in school, for some reason I managed to escape Animal Farm.

    Lindy - exactly, the humour really surprised me but then I do love that kind of cynical humour anyway ;)

    Sam - I will add down and out to mine! thanks

  9. I love both Animal Farm and 1984 and I do want to get to know the man behind such great novels. He writes so beautifully and easy that it is easy for readers to be taken up along his stories.

    I would like to read this and Burmese Days next. Thanks for the review Jess. :)

  10. Wonderful review -- I am so glad I saw this as I would probably never have known about this novel otherwise. I am definitely going to seek this one out, as it sounds like something I would really like.
    Thanks :)

  11. This sounds awesome! I loved Animal Farm but haven't read anything else of Orwell's. I just added this to my TBR. Thanks for the great review!

  12. Thank you for mentioning a lesser work that you enjoyed. I'm a fan of his and would love to read more. Putting this on my tbr list.

  13. Great review. I recently read Animal Farm, and I loved it. I hadn't heard of this one before coming across your post, and it sounds very interesting--an automatic addition to my TBR pile. :)

  14. I've liked Orwell's non-1984 novels a heck of a lot more than 1984 itself (though not more than the wonderful Animal Farm). I'm pretty set on reading most of Orwell's fiction, but I'm in no particular rush. Seems like Coming Up for Air might be a good choice after I get around to Homage to Catalonia...

  15. JoV - ah no worries, I wnder what I'll read next?

    TheBookGirl - if this hadnt been chosen for my book group then I would never have heard of it, funny how that sometimes happens.

    Brenna - no worries I hope you enjoy it

    Monica - I hope to read more of his more well known ones but I think this can stand on its own really

    Darlyn - I think I saw the animation of Animal farm when I was really young and I had no idea what the heck was going on LOL I should read it now I know what its about.

    Biblibio - ah Homage to Catalonia is on my TBR list too! someone I knew recommened it so I hope its good!

  16. I actually enjoy, or appreciate, cynical humor. Thanks for a great review -- I made a note of this one.

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