Set in Brighton and spanning the period of May 1940 – June 1941 “Unexploded” is obviously a story about war. It is, however, a deliciously layered novel whose strength is in its dealings with smaller more personal wars as well.
The novel leads us through the streets of Brighton, pointing out landmarks and features. Hitler is expected to invade and MacLeod is illuminating on the resultant atmosphere:
“Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it.”
Evelyn, Geoffrey and their son, Phillip, live in the heart of Brighton. They are the very picture of respectability. Geoffrey is a banker who has been selected to take charge of Brighton’s internment camp. Evelyn is a well to do woman, unused to running the house without staff, but muddling along. She married Geoffrey “…for his intelligent kindness, for his sense of fairness, for his loyalty to people.” We begin by sharing her impression of Geoffrey as a moralistic and trustworthy pillar of the community, and then watch that impression shatter.
Unexploded continually subverts preconceptions.
Evelyn takes it upon herself to read to the sick prisoners at the camp and encounters Otto Gottlieb, a “degenerate” German-Jewish artist. He is objectionable and hostile, and yet eventually shows more humanity than Geoffrey.
The evocation of wartime suspicions is superbly done. The children that Philip play with secretly listen to Lord Haw-Haw and anticipate Hitler’s arrival with a thrill. Anti-Semitism is rife, suspicion everywhere. A playmate’s older brother has been damaged forever in the war. Phillip’s friend wants revenge for him. Games turn ever more dangerous.
As Geoffrey and Evelyn’s relationship disintegrates both form attachments to others. There is much bubbling underneath. Evelyn seeks solace and wisdom in literature and particularly in the words of Virginia Woolf. (In yet another smashed preconception she sees her butcher attending a Woolf lecture.) Otto pays tribute to the dead through his paintings. The Arts are a vital life force.
I was already a fan of Alison MacLeod’s writing before I began reading Unexploded. I am even more so now. Her words resonate, her descriptions are clear, her ability to imagine small details transport the reader. She expertly moves the story through to its climax, and beyond. Thoroughly deserving of its Booker longlisting, this is a thought provoking and engaging novel.