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Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 352 pages
All through the summer of 1940, the south coast of England was braced for a German invasion. Operation Sea Lion, as Hitler’s plan was called, involved wiping out the Royal Air Force, mining the English Channel and incapacitating the Royal Navy. Despite the reservations of his top naval and air commanders, Hitler was determined to press ahead. In the event, the operation was repeatedly revised, postponed and eventually shelved. But not before many bombs had been dropped and many civilians killed.
For the population of England’s south coast, this was a tense and terrifying time and it makes for a gripping backdrop to Canadian author Alison MacLeod’s new, Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, Unexploded.
Set in Brighton, the novel follows the lives of Evelyn Beaumont, her banker husband Geoffrey and their eight-year-old son, Philip, through a tumultuous period from May 1940 to June 1941. Upper-class Evelyn is struggling with the challenges of doing the cooking and cleaning for the first time in her life and trying to live up to her husband’s expectations of her as a wife and mother. Geoffrey, meanwhile, has been made superintendent of the local internment camp for enemy aliens, and is expressing political views about foreigners that Evelyn finds distasteful to say the least.
Their marriage is already troubled by class differences and the enduring trauma of Evelyn’s difficult labour, but when Geoffrey reveals that, in the event of a Nazi invasion, he has made preparations to leave without his wife and son, the couple’s mutual estrangement becomes acute. This being the 1940s and the Beaumonts being frightfully English, nothing is addressed directly. MacLeod describes the increasing aridity of their interactions – the stiff kiss, the formal greeting, the toxic build-up of concealment and deception – in precise and painful detail, as Evelyn and Geoffrey each make choices that only intensify their marital difficulties.
The implicit metaphor of a couple out of their depth is enacted explicitly when Geoffrey goes for an early morning swim in the sea and for a brief moment “the stranglehold of the cold water, its overwhelming of all thought” allows him to imagine other ways of living, other selves he might be. Otto Gottlieb, a German Jewish refugee, is less fortunate. Having escaped from the horrors of Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, he nearly drowns in the freezing waters of the Channel before being imprisoned, badly wounded, in the Brighton internment camp. In case we’ve still missed the point, Evelyn starts visiting the camp, against her husband’s wishes, where she reads the prisoners passages from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves. Evelyn will later learn of Woolf’s suicide by drowning just as she herself is being engulfed by accumulating events and emotions.
This tendency to flog the life out of her central themes – water and fire, drowning and exploding – is a puzzling weakness in MacLeod’s writing. Since 1990 she has taught at the University of Chichester, where she is professor of contemporary fiction. The author of two previous novels,The Changeling (1996) and The Wave Theory of Angels (2005), as well as an acclaimed collection of short stories, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (2007), she has garnered high praise in the past.
Whether Unexploded makes the Booker shortlist next month or not, and despite its weaknesses, it will do her reputation no harm. The plot is fast-paced and engaging, the characters are compelling, and the descriptions of wartime Brighton are pin-sharp, with only very occasional signs of that perennial risk of historical fiction: the kerthunk of “research”. As the Beaumonts’ marriage silently implodes, real explosives are devastating the streets of Brighton, which MacLeod evokes in a powerful chapter written entirely in the second person singular, the “you” form capturing both the intimacy and the impersonality of the experience.
Casual and virulent forms of anti-Semitism were rife in British society in the 1940s and this, too, MacLeod handles extremely well. The unthinking prejudice of the basically decent if deeply unimaginative Geoffrey is chilling and the treatment of Otto Gottlieb at the hands of the British authorities still more so. Meanwhile, the Beaumonts’ son and his friends secretly tune in to Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts, seduced by the intoxicating violence of the rhetoric, with eventual devastating consequences.
Physical invasion, it turns out, is not the only or even the greatest threat. “There is no invasion as fearful as love, no havoc like desire. Its fuse trembles in the human heart and runs through the core of the world. What are our defences to it?” Predictably, perhaps, Evelyn and Otto are drawn to one another through chance circumstance and a shared love of literature and art, which is shown to be both a means of escape and vital sustenance. Their relationship is sensitively drawn, complex, tender, and replete with precisely the authenticity lacking between Evelyn and her husband. The novel’s denouement is as heart-rending as it is unexpected.
Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)