To the long list of distinguished novels set in the Second World War – The English Patient, The Reader, Birdsong, to name but a very few – must be added Alison Macleod’s Unexploded. Macleod’s third novel is the story of a marriage, the story of a war and the story of Brighton, as the coastal town braces itself for invasion and suffers the unloading of bombs by German aircraft on their way back from London. Evelyn is a caring and responsible wife to Geoffrey and mother to Philip, whose birth was so traumatic that Geoffrey has been charged never to get his wife pregnant again. Geoffrey has been appointed Superintendent of the prison camp, a role he feels duty bound to fulfil. The novel opens with Evelyn’s discovery of two cyanide pills Geoffrey has hidden in preparation for the worst.
This is a novel whose vast themes – World War Two, anti-Semitism, national security, trust, betrayal, the importance of art and music – are expressed through the domestic. The keys Evelyn holds in order to check on the houses of neighbours who have fled; her reading of Virginia Woolf; the contents of her shopping basket. The shock of discovering the pills, followed by the discovery that her husband has been carrying on an illicit liaison, is made part and parcel of the general chaos that war has inflicted on the town. Macleod has commented that she didn’t set out to write a World War Two novel, and certainly the emotions and concerns of her characters are not defined by the period. Evelyn in particular has a timeless quality, to the extent that at times the period and the characters seem to exist separately. The developments of the relationships between Evelyn, Geoffrey, the German degenerate camp prisoner Otto, even Evelyn’s unconventional, lovely friend Sylvia, would sit comfortably in a contemporary novel. Although Macleod achieves her period setting with mindful delicacy, some of the tropes are very familiar. The prisoner with amazing artistic skills; the kindly Jew, now imprisoned and at the mercy of the very people he once helped; the terrible explosion of a bomb that turns out to be live; the children, embroiled in a conflict they are ill-equipped to understand. I appreciated Macleod’s mastery of language, and admired the way that she created tension (is that a cyanide pill or a liquorice torpedo?) but couldn’t quite rid myself of the sense that I was reading something I’d read before. In the hands of a lesser writer, that might have mattered more.