2013 Longlisted: Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

UnexplodedRating: 3.5
A Novel by Alison MacLeod
2013 / 352 Pages

Unexploded is a story of a marriage exploding at the seams at the same moment when the German’s impending invasion of Brighton Beach is set to occur. “In those weeks, bombs dropped like leaves of autumn.”

It is also an exquisitely drawn tale featuring four distinct and individual characters coping with loss, love and an ever-increasing threat of invasion. Evelyn, Geoffrey, Philip and Otto are wonderfully placed in this WWII historical fiction piece.

For Evelyn, she knows her marriage fell apart at its seams when her husband announces a new position he has accepted without first considering or discussing with her. For her, his announcement shows his all too readily willing ability to abandon her and their son. Geoffrey has accepted the post of Superintendent of a labour camp created on the grounds of a former race-track. Geoffrey believes this is what is required of him and consultation with Evelyn wasn’t an option.

Following this announcement and the subsequent cooling of their relationship, Evelyn also becomes increasingly startled at the quick unraveling of their safely guarded lives and at her husband’s actions/attitudes. After 12 years of marriage she is beginning to realize he’s not quite the man she thought he was. His anti-Semitism which has simmered below is bubbling more to the surface.

“In their life together, had Geoffrey disguised his true opinions less for himself than for her? Was it the unspoken condition of their marriage? Did her own rot run deeper than his? Would it -had it- spread to Philip?”

“Otto Gottlieb wasn’t a conman. Her husband was.”

Evelyn also experiences an awakening following a lecture given by her beloved author, Virginia Wolf. Wolf and her novels feature prominently in Evelyn’s life and in this novel. Following Woolf’s lecture, Evelyn sees it as a call to arms and begins to visit the infirmary at her husband’s labour camp so that she may read Wolf’s work to the prisoners.  Here is where she first encounters Otto.

Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way ourselves.  Let us discover how to read and write, how to preserve and how to create. (Virginia Woolf)

Unexploded then weaves Otto’s tale in to the story. He is a Jewish artist, cast out when the transformation to “The German National/Culture Chamber” came about and when his art became “An Insult to German Womanhood” and demonstrated his attraction to “Cretins and Whores”. Now labelled a “Degenerate”, it’s a designation making it impossible for his escape to Switzerland. He is arrested, he escapes this camp and now finds himself interned at the camp that Geoffrey oversees. Evelyn becomes intrigued by this man and in a often written tale, becomes consumed by him and falls in love, as does Otto with her.

But she looked – she was – achingly lovely. Of course, as chance would have it, she was also the Superintendent’s wife, and he was too many things: a Jew, a refugee, an enemy alien, a degenerate and an undesirable. One didn’t want to be too many things. One was meant to be singular and pure.

Throughout we also hear Geoffrey’s perspective and how he is coping with the unraveling of his marriage, his discovery of a Jewess prostitute for whom he believes he has fallen in love with and the fight in the end to salvage his marriage.

 At the usual time, he would join the shadow of his former self at the station’s exit, remember who he was, and turn left on to Trafalgar Street, just as he did every Wednesday afternoon.

MacLeod also treats us to the youth perspective through Philip’s voice. Philip has a gang of friends, one that may or may not be a Jew, one with a brother that is off fighting in the war and together they live through war stories and fantasies of Hitler.

She writes with exquisite and tightly controlled beauty. Many of her sentences could be written in here to demonstrate the often eloquent way in which she writes, as her words really do grace the page, but there were so many examples it would just be wiser to read the book yourself. It is undeniable she has a true gift with words, she writes with arresting beauty, and exposes the simmering underlying sadness that war offers – not only for the returning and broken soldiers, the prisoners of internment camps, but the everyday person, those families –  the husbands and wives and children. However, I cannot deny that many times my enthusiasm waned during points of this book as here I was reading another WWII-based story. After all, Unexploded does not provide a terribly original premise. While it does provide a slightly different apologue with Otto’s artistry and hints of mystery, it still remained a well-oft told WWII tale with Hitler, anti-Semitism and British sacrifice, complete with the forbidden love for a Jew. However, it was exquisitely drawn with many moments of poignant thoughtfulness and toward the end had me perched further on the edge of my seat with anticipation and foreboding of forthcoming events. Therefore, I do see this one reaching the Shortlist and I would be most pleased to see it there. 3.5 stars.

Unexploded was chosen by me, (prior to opening the pages) to champion for the win for the Man Booker Prize 2013. Therefore, that post will have to be wildly different from this more formal book review as posted here on the Literary Hoarders’ site. We were told we could create that post in any manner we chose. To see that post championing Unexploded for the win, you’ll have to watch for it to appear on the BookerMarks site. I’m currently mulling over ideas. And possibly taking suggestions.

This review will be posted simultaneously on BookerMarks, and separately my “Why This Should Win” post as well.