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Unexploded - Book of the Month

by Alison MacLeod

In May 1940 Hitler's advance through Europe looked unstoppable and it seemed only a matter of time before Germany invaded Britain. Brighton, with its long beaches and proximity to London, was a likely choice for invasion and in this, her third novel, MacLeod explores the effect of that terrible dread and uncertainty on a family living there at the time.

Evelyn lives in a regency terrace with her husband, Geoffrey, and eight-year-old son, Philip. Geoffrey is a banker and a pillar of local society and he is Evelyn's rock. Yet, at this most stressful time, he tells her that, should there be an invasion, he will be tasked with moving the bank's money to a place of safety and will be abandoning them. With extraordinary sang froid, he shows her the place in the garden where he has buried two hundred pounds in case the worst should happen and, she later discovers, two cyanide capsules, one for her and one for Philip. Thus begins her disenchantment with the man whom she married for his "his intelligent kindness, for his sense of fairness, for his loyalty to people". Gradually, as the stifling heat and German threat takes its toll, Geoffrey's solidity comes to seem more like emotional repression and the qualities she admired in him are seriously called into question.

Geoffrey is appointed Superintendant of the camp on the outskirts of town where 'enemy aliens' - citizens of German and Italian origin - are interned. When Evelyn hears that their Italian tailor is one of the prisoners, she is horrified and decides to go and read to the frail old man. While there, she meets another inmate, Otto Gottlieb, a painter who has already been subject to the horrors of a Nazi internment camp on account of being a "Jewish degenerate". Their initial mutual distrust is gradually dispelled and Evelyn finds herself drawn into a relationship which, while offering her the passion lacking in her marriage, threatens to destabilise the lives of those she loves.

This finely-wrought novel has all the intensity of focus of one of MacLeod's wonderful short stories, yet brilliantly encompasses broad and difficult themes. She has bravely tackled a murky, little-documented area of our national history in which the less noble effects of war - paralysing fear, distrust, xenophobia and morbid self-interest - play havoc with a cast of unforgettable characters. They inhabit a world as vivid, frightening and ultimately fascinating as the bright green, torpedo-shaped cyanide capsules that lie buried in the dark heart of the novel.

Read our interview with Alison MacLeod.

Published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton, 352pp.

Clare Chandler

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