Review: Unexploded, By Alison MacLeod

Power and potency of a sensual war

Second World War novels are ubiquitous, but Alison MacLeod's Man Booker long-listed Unexploded is multi-layered, like Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2009. As with the latter, the author's grasp of emotions, and history of art as well as politics, lend depth and charge.

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Evelyn and her banker husband Geoffrey live in Brighton. Geoffrey is superintendent of the internment camp where "enemy aliens" (Germans and Italians) are held captive. When Evelyn offers to read to prisoners, Geoffrey is discouraging. Furthermore, he reveals political views that Evelyn finds abhorrent. But Evelyn persists, and once there she meets a Jewish German artist who escaped to Britain after fleeing Sachsenhausen, where he had been interred for being one of the "degenerate" artists, so labelled by the Nazis because their work didn't comply with Aryan ideals.

The story follows Evelyn between May 1940 and June 1941. MacLeod weaves her research into the narrative so that fascinating snippets of cultural and political history emerge naturally: Picasso's Guernica on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from December 1938 to mid January 1939; the Nazi propaganda broadcasts made from Germany by the Irish-American William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"); the landing of the Dutch foreign minister on Brighton beach in a sea-plane; Virginia Woolf's suicide; the bombing of Brighton Odeon.

MacLeod is potent on the devastation of war. Her second-person narrated description of a bomb explosion is viscerally powerful, hypnotising with the intimacy of the "you" form while shocking with bald facts. Her depiction of medical experiments on children in the German concentration camps horrifies with a single sentence.

Often in literature, when headstrong young women with snobby, bigoted parents marry a man of whom their parents disapprove, he is a paragon of uxoriousness. Here, defying stereotypes, the seemingly just Geoffrey reveals ugly character traits. His triumphant (if transient) certainty that he has shed his adoration for Evelyn is deftly portrayed: "... he had outgrown his old need of her ... had cast off the dependence they had both mistaken for his love." Two children also transpire to have dark sides; a capacity for mob mentality and brutality.

There are some flaws. Although MacLeod's formal style admirably fits in with the argot of the time, she is overly fond of adverbs, and of strings of adjectives. Occasional sentences sound overwrought, with inappropriate metaphors conjured up. Rare cliches appear. Omniscient narrators who can read the thoughts of several characters at once have a distancing, fairy-tale effect.

Compensating for niggles, though, are the sensuality of MacLeod's prose, whether dealing with art, desire or love; and her uncanny way of allowing us to experience the thought processes of her characters as if they are traversing our own brain synapses.

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