Picador £14.99

The Unwitting By Ellen Feldman; book review


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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'