Unexploded by Alison MacLeod
|Unexploded by Alison MacLeod|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: An antidote for anyone who believes that to be award-nominated a novel has to be literary beyond comprehension. Alison MacLeod writes a compelling story of such texture, beauty and climactic shock that, if there was a national gallery for novels, this would be the star turn.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: July 2013|
|Publisher: Hamish Hamilton|
It's 1940 and Britain lives in fear of a Nazi invasion that could happen any day. In case the worst happens, Evelyn's husband Geoffrey has buried a little something for her and their young son Philip in the garden. He tells her the tin contains a bit of money and his favourite photo of them. As she digs it up from impulse rather than necessity, she discovers that there's no photo but what there is instead makes Evelyn doubt that she knows the man she married. The events that follow make Evelyn realise that indeed she doesn't. Meanwhile the war continues and a German does invade their lives, but not in the way that either of them could envisage.
Canadian–born, Yorkshire-raised writer Alison MacLeod had two books entered into the Man Booker Prize for 2013 by her publishers, which is a fair achievement. However for Alison the icing on the cake was having Unexploded included in the long list.
Alison wrote it as an exploration of people living their lives fully during Brighton's scariest days. For me it's magnetically compelling and should be read by anyone who feels jaded by long-lists of overblown literary offerings. This is a story that envelops us and then the rewards still keep on coming.
Evelyn and Geoffrey's third person individual chapters (if you get what I mean) are interwoven with other vignettes about refugees, the German build-up to the war and the general life that surround our couple in in the city where Alison currently lives. For instance for 2½ pages we readers become bombed out blitz victims. Yes, 'become' is the right word; the writing is so vivid and the detail so meticulous causing us to think of that experience in a way that we post-war babies have had little if any opportunity to before.
History at school taught me that Britain was the WWII goody. Yes there was Oswald Mosley and his followers, but on the whole we were a tolerant lot. However, Alison opens up an entirely different view of our green and pleasant land as, through Geoffrey and those around him, we realise how anti-Semitic we English could be. In fact Geoffrey's reaction to Jewish Otto's escape from a German forced labour camp is as breathtakingly shocking to us as it is to Evelyn as she assesses her past and future.
Alison doesn't just inhabit her characters' heads, she inhabits their souls. The way she writes about Philip's friend's reaction to his war-damaged brother's return shows her uncanny psychological intuition. As well as being one of the most insightful episodes I've ever read, it's also one of the saddest.
In fact I dare you to read the novel and remain unmoved. Total emotional engagement isn't an option, it goes without saying. When I wasn't blubbing I was angry, wanting to give Geoffrey a good shaking. When the climax finally hit I had to stop reading, I was so stunned.
The deeper truths are there for those who enjoy delving. Besides the theme of people facing extreme conditions and the nature of xenophobia, it questions how well we know those we trust, whether we sleepwalk through our lives and the importance of communication. (With We're broken by everything we cannot say. Alison cuts to the nub.) For those who just want to be swept along by a good yarn, this tsunami of a tale has such depth, beauty and texture that if it doesn’t win the Man Booker, I shall be more than mildly miffed.
If you'd like to try more Man Booker 2013 long-listers, we suggest your next stop is at Harvest by Jim Crace. If you'd like to read more about Britain during the dark days of 1940, we recommend The Beauty Chorus by Kate Lord Brown.
You can read more book reviews or buy Unexploded by Alison MacLeod at Amazon.com.
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