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Unexploded by Alison Macleod
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Unexploded

by Alison Macleod

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1003120,775 (3.64)1 / 44

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It was interesting to feel my response to Geoffrey change just as his wife, Evelyn’s did. Initially I found it didn’t ring true that Geoffrey would decide potentially to leave her and his son behind facing the invasion while he accompanied, indefinitely, his bank’s resources, making the decision to do this possibly because he felt he loved her too much. But as the story unfolds, we begin to see other weaknesses in this character, in the way he is heading along the same conventional path as his despised parents-in-law.

For the most part I felt MacLeod managed to subdue her research into this period of history enough for the narrative not to be artificially bogged down in historical trivia designed to let the reader know they were really experiencing what it was like then. Some descriptions, though, do jar a little. Phillip’s walk to school, for example, past all the shops whose functions have now been superseded, seemed too contrived to me with ‘the milkman’s barrow, ‘two Gypsies [who] waved fistfuls of wildflowers’, ‘the gas fitter’, ‘the radio-set shop, ‘the tinsmith’, ‘milk pails’ . . . And I had a sense of both history and a female novelist’s preoccupation in the lengthy description of what Virginia Woolf was wearing: ‘red-and-blue plaid blouse with a large bow at the neck, a silver corduroy fitted jacket’ etc. etc. I find it ironic that MacLeod has been criticised for getting some historical facts wrong, such as paracetamol being available in 1940. Does this really matter in a novel?

Evelyn became a more interesting character as she loses her love for her husband and questions herself. There is, though, an inevitability in the novel. Those cyanide pills buried by Geoffrey were bound to be dug up, the anti-Semitism to have repercussions and Evelyn was certain to develop her feelings for Otto. Still, I found myself caught up both by the characterisation and by the way MacLeod broadens the story: ‘There is no invasion as fearful as love, no havoc like desire. Its fuse trembles in the human heart and runs through to the core of the world. What are our defences to it?’.

This is a novel to be reread for what it yields. I’m not sure how I feel at the moment about its narration – third person limited but from the point of view of the four different main characters as well as now and again from minor characters’ points of view. And we get parts, like the one quoted above, which seem to come directly from the author. Is this too great a range or does it enrich the novel? I’m not sure yet. ( )
  evening | Jun 18, 2016 |
I knew nothing about the author before finding this book, but was hugely impressed by its literacy and fresh insights into what could have been quite cliched subject matter. A readable and gripping story of life in Brighton during the darkest days of World War 2, it has a nuanced and believable view of the moral issues of the time, and resists the heroic view. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 11, 2014 |
War is about the clash of ideals. It brings about destruction and chaos and upheaval on a massive scale. It has been well documented in the history texts time and time again. But it also brings confusion and chaos on a personal level to people on the periphery of the conflict. And that is what Alison Macleod documents well in her novel Unexploded.

Page 5-6
In the shop that afternoon, Evelyn had clutched Tillie's list and gathered the items as if each were a talisman against uncertainty, and if the uncertainty was great, the weight of her basket was greater still. On her journey home, she balanced an oversized box of soap flakes, a storm lamp, parcels of candles, boxes of matches, a bottle of witch hazel, first-aid provisions, bars of carbolic soar, emergency lavatory paper and a bottle of cod liver oil. As she walked, she stopped several times to shake the blood black into her right arm, though she never let go of the plait of onions that she gripped her ribcage with her left.
When the King had surprised the country with his unprecedented call for a day of national prayer, it was warning enough. Whatever the BBC said, the situation could only be dire. Still, she'd procrastinated, pushing Tillie's list deep into a pocket and avoiding the town centre for most of that week - the seafront in particular, for she couldn't bear to see the boats lurching on to the beach and toppling with the wounded and the frightened.
Fear was an infection - airborne, seaborne - rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it. Fifty miles of water was a slim moat to an enemy that had take five countries in two months, and Brighton, regrettably, had for centuries been hailed as an excellent place to land.
Link to my blog ( )
  steven.buechler | Oct 29, 2013 |
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The adroit prose of author Alison MacLeod, who was born in Canada and now lives in the U.K., effectively establishes the slightly surreal tone of comfortable lives stripped bare by the prospect of war. The book teems with the excruciating sense that the parameters of life have changed in ways that are yet to be revealed. In this sense, MacLeod’s historical fiction reminds one of nothing so much as a chilling post-apocalyptic novel.

Amid this oppressive atmosphere, the Second World War becomes an effective backdrop for the book’s inexorably unfolding domestic betrayals. The novel proceeds with a palpable sense of dread, but when MacLeod introduces the biblical story of David and Bathsheba as a comment on the Beaumonts’ strained relationship, the comparison feels inappropriately grandiose. Unexploded works best when it is at its most poignant: as a portrait of a family trying to sort out values and morality in a world where both have been turned upside down.
 
Her third novel, which has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker prize, was also prompted by current events; in this case, al-Qaida's terror attack on London on 7 July 2005. Yet rather than writing about the bombings directly, MacLeod has transposed the atmosphere of fear and vulnerability to her home town of Brighton in the spring and summer of 1940, as the population braced itself for the prospect of a German invasion.

Focusing on the affairs of an average middle-class family – Geoffrey Beaumont, a bank manager, his wife, Evelyn, and their eight-year-old son, Philip – the novel depicts a nation anxiously awaiting zero hour.

...the novel continues to explore MacLeod's central thesis that change is the only predictable outcome of chaos: "Change was creeping under the door and through the windows of their home, persistent as gas … It was gathering over the house in spite of the purity of the day's rinsed blue sky. It was spiralling down the flue. At night as they slept, it would settle over their hearts." As an exploration of the xenophobia and neurosis unleashed in times of national crisis, Unexploded ticks along nicely. MacLeod remains one of the most astute chaoticians writing today.

added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Alfred Hickling (Aug 22, 2013)
 
Unexploded takes place over one year in Brighton from May 1940 amid fears that Hitler is set to invade Britain. Geoffrey Beaumont is a banker on standby for a covert offshore mission intended to secure the future of sterling in the event that the Nazis arrive. His contingency plan for his wife, Evelyn, and their eight-year-old son, Philip, involves a sheaf of £20 notes and an envelope containing two cyanide pills buried in a tin in the garden – which comes as a shock to Evelyn.

The novel’s title is suggestive of how the war ignites elements that are secretly combustible in the Beaumonts’ 12-year marriage.

There’s plenty going for Unexploded – a persuasive period setting, an intricate plot, some sumptuous prose – and you can see why this year’s Man Booker judges longlisted it, but there’s also something unpalatable about how it puts an exotic stranger on the rack just so the heroine can feel more alive.
 
Second World War novels are ubiquitous, but Alison MacLeod's Man Booker long-listed Unexploded is multi-layered, like Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2009. As with the latter, the author's grasp of emotions, and history of art as well as politics, lend depth and charge.

MacLeod weaves her research into the narrative so that fascinating snippets of cultural and political history emerge naturally: Picasso's Guernica on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from December 1938 to mid January 1939; the Nazi propaganda broadcasts made from Germany by the Irish-American William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"); the landing of the Dutch foreign minister on Brighton beach in a sea-plane; Virginia Woolf's suicide; the bombing of Brighton Odeon.

MacLeod is potent on the devastation of war. Her second-person narrated description of a bomb explosion is viscerally powerful, hypnotising with the intimacy of the "you" form while shocking with bald facts. Her depiction of medical experiments on children in the German concentration camps horrifies with a single sentence.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Independent, Leyla Sanai (Aug 10, 2013)
 
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"May, 1940. Brighton. Wartime. On Park Crescent, a sunlit and usually tranquil street, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip, anxiously await news. The enemy is expected to land on the beaches of Brighton any day. It is a year of tension, change and anticipation. Geoffrey becomes Superintendent of the enemy alien camp at the far reaches of town, while young Philip is gripped by rumours that Hitler will make Brighton's Royal Pavilion his English HQ and spends hours with his friends imagining life in Brighton under Hitler's rule. And as the rumours continue to fly and the days tick on, Evelyn quietly struggles to fall in with the war effort and her thoughts become tinged with a mounting, indefinable desperation." --Publisher description.… (more)

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