Unexploded by Alison MacLeod – a review

Unexploded is set in wartime Britain, in the south-coast town of Brighton. It takes place between May 1940 and June 1941, during which time the threat of Nazi invasion hands over the town. Bombers fly overhead, mostly en route to and from blasting London to pieces, sometimes dropping bombs on Brighton.

Life goes on as normal, with characters going to work or bringing shopping home from a butcher’s shop. Yet life isn’t normal. People try to make it go on as before, with a summer ball held behind black out blinds, but fear is never far away.

Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although nobody spoke of it, nobody was immune to it.

The novel follows the lives of four characters: Evelyn Beaumont, her schoolboy son Philip and her husband Geoffrey – a banker who is also superintendent at the local internment camp, as well Otto Gottlieb, a German-Jewish painter who is a prisoner in that camp.

In a way, the setting – both place and time – is a fifth main character. However, this is not a book about war in its narrower sense. The only guns and shooting are with makeshift weapons in the hands of young boys, enacting out their anxieties. The novel is as much about a silent war within a marriage as it is about war between countries. It is about war in form of prejudice, both towards different races and towards different classes.

I particularly like the way Alison MacLeod uses ordinariness to show how war is far from ordinary in its effect on people’s lives, such as in this scene where Evelyn has broken curfew when she can’t sleep and is walking through a park in darkness.

Night flowers served no purpose. They were unwarranted gifts – small, delicate triumphs that exceeded purpose, that sang of useless variety.…

What were flowers to a war? What was anything?

At the end of the summer, seeds and shoots would be gathered, the bulbs and tubers lifted, the beds turned and the lawns of the private Regency park ploughed into vegetable plots.

Of the four main characters, Evelyn is the principal, with Unexploded opening and closing from her point of view. She is in her early thirties, having married young to escape her parents, particularly her late father who was prone to furious outbursts. She felt drawn to Geoffrey because he seemed the complete opposite of her parents – calm, dependable and safe.

Now, she isn’t so sure. She is wandering the streets of Brighton in the middle of the night because of an argument that has left her no longer sure who Geoffrey is.

He’d looked away. When he’d answered her, he’d looked away.

There’s a tendency to think that during World War II, everyone in Britain was united in a desire to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, and to liberate the Jewish people and the others who were captive in concentration camps. We look back on that period, and image we were the heroes, the virtuous ones.

Of course, we know about Mosley and his Blackshirts, but we assume that ordinary decent people were appalled by them. Unexploded shows this to be far from the case.

Evelyn’s parents had despised everyone from liberals to communists, from agitators to pacifists, as well as Jews, Catholics and anyone else they considered beneath them. Evelyn, in turn, despised their prejudices, but as the war progresses, it becomes clear that prejudice is everywhere, including in her husband and friends. Geoffrey listens to Lord Haw-Haw on the radio and although Evelyn doesn’t want Philip to hear it, he often does. Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts in English from Germany, making claims that the Nazis are destroying British forces and will soon invade Britain. He claims that he is telling the truth and that what people hear on the British radio are lies.

People who have worked and lived as neighbours distrust and inform on each other, and undesirables such as the Beaumont’s Italian tailor are arrested and interned.

Evelyn tries to ease the burden of this old man’s life by visiting him in the prison hospital and reading to him. It is here that she meets Otto Gottlieb, also held in the prison hospital after trying to drown himself in the sea. She dislikes him intensely on their first meeting, but gradually comes to discover that, as with Geoffrey, there is more to Otto than what is on the surface.

While his parents’ marriage is undergoing upheaval, Philip and his friend Orson speculate on what life will be like after Hitler has invaded Britain and made Brighton the home of his headquarters. Like many of the adults around them, Orson hates Jews and blames them for the war. He has plans to wreak revenge, when the time is right.

Alison MacLeod’s prose is lyrical and astute, while her keen observation of the minutiae of everyday life and of emotions give a clarity to the novel. The novel switches perspective between the four main characters – often within a chapter and occasionally within a paragraph. Normally the latter would annoy me, but somehow Alison carries it off. Although Unexploded is not what you’d call a “page-turner” it is an engrossing read and one that I certainly enjoyed.

Alison is a Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester, and in the interests of balance, I should reveal that I was one of her students several years ago when I did an MA in Creative Writing at that university. Does that make me biased when writing this review? I don’t think so, because I’ve read plenty of books by people I know and I don’t always enjoy them just because of that.

So will you enjoy Unexploded?

No, if you only read fast-paced thrillers, or formula romance – or indeed books that follow any formula or skim the surface of life. Unexploded is original and deep.

Yes, if you like thoughtful books whose charm lie in subtlety. Yes if you like writing that is filled with details appealing to all senses, and that brings ordinary life into sharp focus, making you look at it with fresh eyes. Yes if you like books that challenge, and that don’t necessarily have a “happy ending.” Yes if you like learning about history through fiction. So, yes, if you’ve got this far in this review, I think you’ll like it!



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