The New York novelist Ellen Feldman has carved out a bit of a niche for herself as a compelling writer of the uglier chapters of America’s history. 2011’s Next to Love (from the hypothesis that “war … next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination”) followed a group of young men and women through the Second World War to their gradual disappointments in the 1950s and ’60s. Her Orange-shortlisted 2009 novel, Scottsboro, took on the controversial story of “the Scottsboro boys” – the nine black teenagers framed for a rape in Alabama in the 1930s.
Feldman’s fifth novel, The Unwitting, begins with an epigraph from E M Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” It is as close as the author comes to revealing a moral judgement about Charlie Benjamin, the publisher of a 1960s liberal magazine whose absence overshadows this novel.
The Unwitting is mostly narrated by Charlie’s widow, Nell, an accomplished reporter with a journalistic prose style and an analytical approach to the task in hand: discovering whether her late husband betrayed her. Not with another woman – Nell is always pretty clear about that. From the outset, politics is the third person in Nell and Charlie’s marriage, and as ever the political is personal. “It was called the Cold War, and as in any war, both sides played dirty,” recalls Nell in an early foreshadowing of the betrayal to come. “Surely, Charlie and I had no right to be so happy in the middle of it.”
In the beginning, of course, Nell and Charlie are happy. They meet at a student party, and socialise at nicotine-pickled dinner parties with an opinionated group of politically engaged writers, editors and assorted activists.
Shortly after their marriage Charlie is offered a job that he can barely refuse: publishing a magazine that echoes his views and receives hefty financial backing from a charitable foundation. “What the country needs, what the foundation wants to back,” a slightly-too-evangelical Charlie explains to his sceptical wife, “is an intelligent liberal – emphasis on liberal – anti-Soviet take on issues. Or to put it another way, who better to fight communists than former communists and the fellow travellers who marched along with them?”
But is there any such thing as a hands-off financial backer? Where does all the money come from? And is Charlie’s death, in a mugging in Central Park, really as random as it is painted? As a reporter, Nell wants to know. But as a wife, there are questions that she cannot ask.
Times when she could have probed her husband’s arguments, she holds back from making enquiries. “Trust isn’t a cup of sugar you can borrow from a neighbour when the household supply runs out.”
The novel is brilliant on the cruelty of grief, as Nell wanders around an empty apartment, “my loneliness bump[ing] against the high ceilings like an untethered helium balloon” or goes out in New York, where “No casual observer … would guess that every human encounter I had these days was nothing more than a brutal collision that made me feel more alone.” The belittling of her loss by the national hysteria over the assassination of President Kennedy is particularly poignant. Politics – the politics of race and gender, as well as the sinister intrusion of the McCarthy witch hunts – continually impose on the marriage, and on Nell after Charlie is gone. Looking back on a typical, marital tiff, she even recalls speculating: “One day someone will bug our apartment, and I’ll hear the snippiness in my voice.”
To her credit, Feldman steers clear of attributing modern, liberal views on feminism or race to this credible woman of the Fifties and Sixties. “I didn’t like the implication that my primary purpose in life was rocking a crying baby rather than mounting a cogent argument,” Nell says at one point, before immediately demurring: “Poor Charlie. Life with me was not easy.” Her narrative reminded me more of early Margaret Drabble than, say, the less convincing heroine of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth – to take a recent historical novel about a woman caught up in the politics of her time.
The author also narrowly avoids tying up the novel in too neat a moral, but comes dangerously close when she introduces Charlie’s side of the story in the form of his journal. What he has to get down, he writes, is “just how frightening the world looks today, Tuesday, November 18, 1952”.
But is Charlie a hero, a traitor, or a dupe? And does it matter? “I had learned to live with ambiguity,” says Nell. “If you can’t, you have no business falling in love.” Next to love, politics is as ambiguous as it comes. For a writer this bold and dexterous, this is fertile ground.