“Bright-eyed young men, beautiful, foolish and frightened young men, were being blown to pieces – literally, she thought, to pieces – as she sat in her Wednesday-morning knitting circle making socks for feet that would be lost to amputations, and mittens for hands that would never cup a waist or a breast again.”
Would it be wrong to fill this review with Alison MacLeod’s extremely elegant words about wartime? Because I could. MacLeod writes beautifully about a topic that’s frightening, horrible and will never be forgotten.
“The world was back to front, helter-skelter – absurd. The Queen took lessons with a revolver after her morning tea. The Times urged golfers to keep a rifle in their golf bags. Old women were stockpiling garden forks and shears.”
Unexploded is set in 1940, during WWII. Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip, anxiously await news of the expected enemy landing on the beaches of Brighton, England.
“Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it. Fifty miles of water was a slim moat to an enemy that had taken five countries in two months, and Brighton, regrettably, had for centuries been hailed as an excellent place to land.”
The year brings tension and change. While Geoffrey becomes Superintendent of an enemy alien camp on the edge of town, Evelyn struggles to fall in with the war effort and her thoughts become tinged with a mounting, indefinable desperation. She meets Otto Gottlieb, a ‘degenerate’ German-Jewish painter and as Europe crumbles, so to do the structures on which Evelyn’s life rests.
“She’d laugh if she weren’t so uneasy, if she had anything like the composure she’d once credited herself with. Only recently had she come to accept that her former sense of calm, of well-being, was little more than the ruse of privilege; the straight back of deportment lessons.”
Stories about WWII may be a dime a dozen but MacLeod offers a different take – the Brighton setting, the entanglements (that may seem cliched on paper but in MacLeod’s hands are surprising) and the fact that life, with the uncertainties of wartime, had to simply go on.
“Go back, she wanted to say. Go back to our routine. Don’t you see? There is nothing so beautiful and so necessary.”
MacLeod creates a sense of foreboding on many levels. On the grand scale, plumped with details about degenerates, anti-semantic sentiment and casualties of war, you anxiously await Brighton’s invasion.
“The night exploded again. Boom, boom – boom. On the seafront, they were blowing up the piers. It was the end, she thought, the end of pleasure.”
On the smaller scale, MacLeod creates disconcerting situations and relationships for each character. Geoffrey, seemingly the devoted husband, is soon revealed as a man with prejudices and double standards. Phillip’s friendship with an odious boy, Orson, seems destined for disaster – the boys’ fantasies about afternoon tea with Hitler are the least of it. But Unexploded is really Evelyn’s story. She’s resentful and bitter, but not for the reasons you might first assume.
“She did not tell Geoffrey that, these days, she was full of fear, but that the contempt she had come to feel for him frightened her most of all.”
3.5/5 Unexploded made the 2013 Man Booker long-list. It deserved to go further, if only for MacLeod’s beautiful words about a terrible time in world history.
“Outside, the perfection of the day – a flat, Gilbert & Sullivan sky of endless blue – irritated her.”
There’s a scene toward the end of the story where the children are given stewed rhubarb and cream to eat. During wartime, what a treat. I always have stewed rhubarb in the fridge, we eat it with vanilla yogurt. My version is made with the juice of an orange (then you don’t need much sugar) and I chuck in raspberries at the end. This recipe from Chef in You is similar but uses strawberries.