Book review: Unexploded By Alison MacLeod

This novel about a stagnant marriage set in wartime is a worthy contender for the Man Booker

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The Independent Culture

The Second World War is well-trodden ground, so much so that any author revisiting the period has to offer up something new and spectacular. Alison MacLeod achieves this and more in Unexploded, the wartime-set story of a struggling marriage that's more than a worthy contender for this year's Man Booker Prize.

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Brighton, May 1940, where it's "as if the nerves of the population ran like thin fuses through the cliff-line's strata of chalk and flint", as everyone awaits the inevitable swarm of Nazi troops up the beaches. Fear is "airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel", where already "white sheets and pristine table linen were hanging from every window on the Channel Islands."

On Park Crescent, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son Philip are similarly infected. Geoffrey – the town's bank manager and Superintendent of the enemy alien camp that's been erected on the town's race course on top of the hill – might be called away on matters of national security at any moment. He's buried an old flour tin in the garden, and left instructions for Evelyn to dig it up in the event of his departure.

Sensing something untoward, she unearths the treasure that very night: £200 in cash, and two small green capsules that "gleamed like bullets" in the moonlight. That Geoffrey could even contemplate leaving her and Philip, and in doing so bequeath them this fate, lies heavy on Evelyn's heart. A wedge is driven between husband and wife, and their previously contented relationship stagnates in the heavy summer heat, each of them alone in their own "tangle of private thought".

In an attempt to do her bit, Evelyn volunteers to read to the sick men at her husband's internment camp. There she meets Otto Gottlieb, a "degenerate" German-Jewish painter who arrived in the country with forged bank notes. What they experience is not a moment of locked eye contact or an immediate meeting of minds, but rather a slow, suspicious, drawn-out journey of discovery of something in each other that, when eventually forced to its crisis, shatters the entire fabric of their lives and that of those around them.

MacLeod is stunningly good on the slow creep of mounting tension against the backdrop of the oppressive summer heat: "The weather needed to break. The war needed to break. The entire town seemed to live on short, staggering breaths." Not to mention knowing what's more powerfully left to the imagination, whether the day-to-day details of a floundering marriage, or Nazi cruelties indescribable. Unexploded is like a piece of finely wrought ironwork, uncommonly delicate but at the same time astonishingly strong and tensile; it's a novel of staggering elegance and beauty.