Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Coming Up for Air I think I need to start this post with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I’d read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I’m glad I’ve waited until now to read it because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.

Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George’s biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?

Based on the other two books I’ve read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell’s surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.

“I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me.”

My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever…that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.

“1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.”

The novel doesn’t have a lot of plot, but that wasn’t a problem; I didn’t find it slow at all. There’s not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George’s head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George’s long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:

“The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler.”

George’s actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn’t actually dislike him. He’s so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don’t know much about Orwell’s own life, but I’m sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.

I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell’s books.

22 thoughts on “Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

  1. mannomoi says:

    Great review, really! I’ve only read half of Animal Farm, and even though I’m not a big fan of it, I know, for some strange reason, I’ll like George Orwell when I actually start reading his works. And this book sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy.

    Thanks for the insightful review and happy reading!

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed Animal Farm but it was a long time ago when I read it and I can’t remember much of it now. If you decide to try more of Orwell’s books I hope you like them!

  2. Lisa says:

    I don’t know much about Orwell’s books, beyond the two you mention, and I didn’t even recognize this title. I think I owe him an apology too!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Orwell’s ‘ordinary’ novels are excellent too, and I recall enjoying this one when I read it. If you like non-fiction/historical stuff, “Homage to Catalonia” is essential!

  4. yasmine rose says:

    I haven’t read Coming Up for Air but it sounds like something I would enjoy. I love Orwell’s social critique which is so frighteningly accurate. I would recommend Keep the Aspidistra Flying, I haven’t read all of Orwell’s works but it’s one of my favourite so far!

  5. Andrea says:

    I’m guilty of the same offense – never read anything beyond 1984 or Animal Farm. Coming Up for Air sounds interesting. I like books with a nostalgic feel to them.

    • Helen says:

      It’s so easy to read an author’s most famous books then not go on to explore any of their other work, isn’t it? I loved this one and definitely want to read more of Orwell’s books now.

  6. heavenali says:

    This sounds wonderful. I read three or four Orwells in my early twenties, then hadn’t read anything else by him till I read Burmese days a couple of years ago. You’ve reminded me I want to read more George Orwell.

  7. Lark says:

    I have to admit, I wasn’t aware of this book. I’ve read Animal Farm and 1984 by Orwell, but assumed those were his only novels. Shows why you should never assume, huh? Thanks for the review. I can see I have more George Orwell to read. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I think most people have probably only heard about Animal Farm and 1984. I’m pleased to have discovered he’s written lots of other books that are worth reading too.

  8. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    Isn’t wonderful to find a book you weren’t expecting to love, but absolutely do? I don’t recall ever reading any Orwell, but I know I must have read something in school. This title appeals to me more than his more famous books do, I have to say. I love internal novels that are very nostalgic.

  9. theperfectionistpen says:

    Great review! I’ve added this book to my TBR 🙂 I’ve only read Animal Farm, 1984, and Why I Write by George Orwell before and, I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of Coming Up for Air, so it’s great to discover more of Orwell’s work.


    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t heard of this book myself until very recently…it’s such a shame it isn’t better known. I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it!

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