Book review: Unexploded by Alison Macleod

Professor Alison MacLeod. Picture: Contributed
Professor Alison MacLeod. Picture: Contributed
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This novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is by Canadian author, Alison Macleod, professor of creative writing at Chichester University, who herself obtained an MA in the same subject from the University of Nova Scotia.

Unexploded by Alison Macleod

Hamish Hamilton. 340pp. £16.99

This is a typical career path for today’s novelist; there are, after all, more than a 100 institutions of higher education in Britain now offering a degree in creative writing.

Given the shrinking market for literary fiction, it clearly makes sense for a novelist to teach the subject and enjoy the security of a salary and the promise of a pension. It’s not all gain, however. Evelyn Waugh thought that anyone should be able to write a novel in a couple of months. Macleod, inset below, says she has taken five years to write this one.

It is set in Brighton in 1940-41, and the opening chapters when everyone is on edge and fearing an imminent German invasion are generally well done. Macleod has evidently researched the period, and, since she lives in Brighton, knows the town well. It is perhaps difficult for readers today to realise just how likely invasion seemed then – perhaps too many viewings of Dad’s Army have made the possibility seem more comic than frightening.

Macleod convincingly shows us people living on their nerves, beset by rumours, and then, from August 1940, frightened by German bombing raids. The early chapters of the novel recreate the tensions that people experienced, and do so sufficiently well to make the occasional mistake venial, as, for instance, when one character, suffering a toothache, thinks, “a dose of penicillin, and he’d be human again”; penicillin wasn’t available in 1940.

The structure of the novel is simple and traditional: it’s the old eternal triangle. Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont, both survivors of unhappy childhoods, have found security in marriage; they have an eight year-old so, Philip.

The war soon puts a strain on their relationship. Geoffrey, an Oxford graduate and bank manager, is – somewhat improbably? – given command of an internment camp for suspect foreigners. One of the internees is an Italian tailor they have known. Evelyn, against Geoffrey’s will, insists on visiting him and reads to the dying man, choosing – again improbably? – a novel by Virginia Woolf. The reading is overheard by another internee, a German painter called Otto, suspected by the British authorities, and Geoffrey himself, of being a spy, partly because he arrived in England with a supply of counterfeit pound notes.

As the Beaumonts’ marriage frays, Otto and Evelyn gradually, and with hesitation on both sides, become close. When Otto is released, he is commissioned to paint a mural in a church. His subject is another triangle – the Old Testament story of David, Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite – though the roles seem wrongly allotted.

Chapters relating the adventures of young Philip and his friends, roaming the town and excited by the possibility of invasion alternate with the adult story. Some of these chapters are lively, not all convincing; there are too many of them, and they are a distraction rather than an enrichment.

There is much to admire and enjoy in this novel, and yet it is less than satisfying. Evelyn is well enough done, a credible portrait of a well-to-do middle-class 1930s wife required to adapt to the utterly different and disturbing conditions of wartime. Little about Geoffrey, however, rings true. In one sense this is obviously intended; he is a hollow man. Otto’s German background is more convincing and the edgy uncertainty of his relations with Evelyn is moving.

For all its ambition, this novel suffers from self-indulgence. There are too many passages of description for description’s sake. Some scenes are superfluous, like the one in which Evelyn attends a talk given by Virginia Woolf, and is surprised to see her butcher in the audience. (But nothing significant is made of that subsequently.) Others simply go on long after their point has been made. In short, there’s a good novel buried here, but it never emerges.

One wonders if, over the years of writing, Macleod has added and embroidered rather than paring away what is not essential to her theme and story. Perhaps she would have been wiser to take Evelyn Waugh’s advice.