War is, of course, one of the big subjects and so it is understandable that serious authors are attracted – if attracted is the right word – to it; at the same time, almost seventy years on, there is a concomitant sense of ennui (what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?) likely to deter some readers from engaging. Unexploded, Alison Macleod’s third novel, trumpets its context from the flyleaf – ‘May, 1940. Brighton. Wartime.’ – but it deftly stands apart from its wartime neighbours in a number of ways.
The novel concerns the marriage of Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont, a tremulous and typical couple of the time whose dealings with one another recall to mind Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting from Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (with the caveat that the Beaumont’s subdued passion seems to have survived into an enduring marriage – leastways until the events of the novel). Macleod is very strong in these opening chapters of the novel, beautifully realising the commingling of things said and left unsaid, as Geoffrey, who works in a bank, returns home early one afternoon to admit that in his role within the evacuation committee, it might be down to him to leave Brighton and his family at the first hint of an invasion. ‘Change,’ Macleod writes, ‘was creeping under the door and through the windows of their home, persistent as gas.’
War is both distant and ever-present, the threat of invasion perverting and distorting the most common interactions. This initial revelation sets a wedge between man and wife as fine as a hairline crack in a China teacup (you could approach Unexploded as a wartime Revolutionary Road, the two books have much in common). Sleep is fractured, a night-time walk introducing elements of unspoken mystery into the marital bed (Geoffrey notices dirt beneath Evelyn’s fingernails that wasn’t there when she went to bed; Evelyn discovers a box buried in the garden containing amongst other things, two pills to be consumed by mother and son if the worst comes to the worst – these pills are Macleod’s loaded gun). Riven after years of habit, amidst an atmosphere of pregnant doom (‘Let them land on the beach,’ Evelyn thinks, ‘Anything, anything other than this waiting’), each is forced to try and make sense of the new world in which they find themselves – Evelyn looking to do her bit in the war effort and Geoffrey resorting to the company of an exotic prostitute (is the fact that Geoffrey is harder to sympathise with a fault in the novel or a cold fact that Geoffrey is harder to sympathise with – hard to say). Evelyn looks to read to prisoners in an internment camp that Geoffrey overseers and becomes involved, ever so gradually (the incremental approach of one to the other again beautifully judged) with a German-Jewish painter called Otto, a grand passion that we know – given the title of the book, and its latent threat – will end badly for someone.
In addition to the various circles in which Geoffrey and Evelyn turn – and of course Brighton itself which is gloriously realised and is as sturdy as a character itself – we also inhabit the world of Philip, their son, whose portions of the novel conjured the likes of Toby Litt’s deadkidsongs and Mick Jackson’s Five Boys, the fearless world of children swerving, perilously and thoughtlessly, into the path of death. Macleod takes the multifaceted perspectives she offers us and weaves them together into a literary page-turner that somehow makes the action of the home front as fearful as that of the frontline (the bombing raids over Brighton also reminded this reader of Sarah Water’s Night Watch). The tragic resolution of the denouement carried with it a slight whiff of resentment (it felt like there was a red herring too many in the final pages) but this is offset by a nicely judged development that offers hope for the years beyond the war.
All told, Unexploded is a well-crafted, thoughtful novel, full of careful, precise writing. Macleod is astute, a good judge of the human condition, a writer able to create a powerful sense of place and time. We’ll be watching what she turns her hand to next with a close eye.
Any Cop?: Highly recommended.