Monday, September 16, 2013

Unexploded by Alison Macleod

Unexploded was longlisted for the Booker but hasn't made it to the shortlist.  Despite this, however, I think it is worth a read.   While having, at first glance, the appearance of a straightforward wartime story, it has hidden depths and questions with not a small nod towards the 'if it happened here ...' school of theory.   Primarily, it is a story about fear - fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of change - and its impact on seemingly settled sedate lives.

The story opens in Brighton in May 1940, just after Dunkirk, when all of England expected Hitler to invade England, probably landing in Brighton itself.  The Beaumont family are the archetypal middle class family - Geoffrey, a steady predictable banker, his wife Evelyn for whom routine, the pages of Good Housekeeping and the caring for her husband and eight year old son, Philip, are everything.   However, in the first chapter her life threatens to fall apart and this seemingly solid life and marriage appear to be anything but and all down to two little pills.  Geoffrey reveals to her that, in the event of invasion, he will have to leave indefinitely on bank business and to help and protect her, he has buried money in the garden for her;  later at night she digs up the buried tin and discovers it also contains two cyanide pills which shock her.   Maybe I judge unfairly but I did feel that, given the country is at war and everyone's husband disappearing and the fear of maybe unknown horrors to come, that Evelyn's reaction is rather extreme and maybe a weakness in the plot.   In any event, from that point, Evelyn's relationship with her husband changes dramatically.

Geoffrey has a second job as Superintendent of a camp for enemy interns located in the town's race course and Evelyn defies him by visiting it to read to those in the camp's infirmary, her author of choice being Virginia Woolf.   There she meets up with Otto Gottlieb, a painter and refugee, who has spent time in the notorious Sachsenhausen before finally escaping from Germany on a passport stamped 'degenerate', which designation is taken seriously by the British.   It is not a spoiler to say that their meeting has a significance to the story and our question is really how and when.   And inevitably, those two little green pills are going to surface again and again.

What Macleod does capture brilliantly is the atmosphere of a town trembling in anticipation of invasion and, indeed, the underlying antisemitism of so many at that time.   Mosley did have widespread support and Geoffrey points out to Evelyn that 'many of the best people in Sussex were giving their sons to Mosley', the 'best people' being those 'looking out for the national good'.   Further, that the Jewish banking dynasties were 'the scourge of international finance'.   Geoffrey and Evelyn attend the last Royal Pavilion Midsummer Ball at the end of June 1940 at which a member of their party condemns the Jews as a 'public nuisance' claiming 'they'll be living the high life off the black market over here when the rest of us are eating our ration books'.   Ironically, Geoffrey goes on to conduct an illicit affair with a Jewish prostitute.  

Macleod's writing is fluid and easy if a little given to metaphors.   She draws on Virginia Woolf's writing through the narrative in a clever way and has some interesting asides on art through Otto whose background in studies of nudes in his paintings has led to his being classified as a 'degenerate' by the nazis.   Bombing and the wartime scarcities become harsh realities in the course of the story and Macleod uses them to create an effective background to the overriding feeling of fear as life disintegrates around her characters.

Worth a read.   Published by Hamish Hamilton, hardback, £16.99 [€13.36 from Book Depository]

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