on 31 July 2014
Unexploded has some really good period descriptions of life in a coastal town in England in 1940. As others have pointed out, there are inaccuracies which should have been checked out, but as someone who doesn't know Brighton, I didn't find that a problem. What I did find more difficult was the fact that the characters did not fully come to life. That's not just because the story is told in the third person. It's more I think because they don't have an evolving vibrant consistency which makes them very immediate. That's a serious loss in a novel I think. The point of view also changes more or less midstream on occasions which is quite disorientating and alienating from the characters.
I was amused by the reviewer who said the novel should be called 'Similes Are Us'. It's a bit unkind, but there is a surfeit of similes, some of which seem to be there for the sake of it, and some which stretch credibility. There are also descriptive passages which are well written, but which seem to have no purpose beyond displaying the ability the author has. There is also a tendency to 'tell' rather than 'show', which is a cliche over used in writing circles (you can't show everything in a 300+ page novel) but which I guess Alison Macleod passes on to her students at Chichester.
Several reviewers have felt the ending is a disappointment. I don't share that. I think the ending works OK.
About a third of the way through this book, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to finish it. However, it was interesting enough to make me want to carry on. I can't say I disliked it. Equally I can't say I really enjoyed it as some reviewers clearly did. So I've given it the middle rating of three stars.
The opening chapter started so well, with Evelyn struggling to make do without her daily help, and trying to coming to terms with a possible invasion after the failure of the Dunkirk landings. This swiftly changed as historical errors blundered their way into the text of my pre-release copy, with mentions of paracetamol and antibiotics for Geoffrey's toothache. I hope this was corrected before publication, but my trust in the author was lost from that point.
Geoffrey, Evelyn and their son Philip are three people in a family that hardly seem to know each other at all. All three of them seem to be something else on the surface, maybe playing a role that they feel society has imposed on them. But just under that surface, and very easily exposed, is something else much darker. All this has unbelievably been hidden throughout their marriage, and all three of them go off the rails at the same time. The problem with this is, that it's very hard to care about what happens to any of these people. They seem to be deceitful and uncaring both to each other, and the others they involve as well. Because of the way that the characters are introduced to the reader, it just seemed too incredible that they would actually do these things too. I do not think that the author has understood how people really lived and interacted in the 1940's in Britain, but has used an idea based on a stereotype that never existed. This is a shame, because it could have been such a fantastic book. The plot is good, the ideas for the characters and the historical context, especially the location - all great, but only in the hands of a different author.
on 2 August 2015
Brighton at the start of WW2. Potential invasion looms, dropping a bomb into Evvie & Geoffrey's marriage that slowly ticks away. Otto is a German artist who has escaped the camps back home but now finds himself imprisoned once more; this time high above Brighton on the Race Hill. His paiting arm is injured and at this point, he can see no hope for a future. When Evvie walks in to read to his fellow inmate, the bomb ticks faster.
This is well written and drew me in to care about all the central characters, especially Otto who grabbed my heart with his hubris. I am a Brightonian so loved reading part of my home town's history in an area I know so well. Particularly touching for me was the inclusion of the Jewish tailor on Trafalgar Street. This man and his house were a local legend growing up and these kind of details weave fact and fiction together. The reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because I didn't quite feel the Brighton vibrancy and attitude in the characters: this isn't a modern thing, it goes wayback. Even in my 70's childhood there was a toughness, resilience and "f***k you" spirit to the true Brightonian oldies I knew. Graham Greene captured this brilliantly in Brighton Rock. Oh, and back then Brighton and Hove were two very separate towns.
A brilliant evocation though of the devastating effect even the beginning of war can have on lives. The unexploded is just waiting for the detonation catalyst.
This novel is set in Brighton, between May 1940 and June 1941. It begins literally days after Dunkirk, when the inhabitants of the seaside town are facing not only the harsh reality of war but the very real threat of invasion. There is only fifty miles of water between them and the enemy and Brighton is "an excellent place to land." However, both those poised across the Channel and those waiting for invasion have some similarities - in that many of them are anti-Semetic. That includes our heroine, Evelyn's, snobbish mother and her banker husband, Geoffrey.
Evelyn and Geoffrey Beaumont live in Brighton, as opposed to the more elegant and desirable Hove, where her mother resides - making deliciously sniping remarks and generally looking down on her daughter's lifestyle. Evelyn is the product of a finishing school and feels generally unable to cope with the cooking and household tasks she faces now she has no help. Geoffrey, although his mother in law may see him as hardly son in law material, is, in fact, one of the town's leading bankers, Head of the Invasion Committee and Superintendent of the new Internment Camp. Together with their eight year old son, Philip, they live a contented, if uneventful life, which war is about to change. Through the internment camp, Evelyn is to come into contact with Otto Gottlieb, a German artist. Both his presence in their lives, plus the war itself, will change Evelyn and Geoffrey's lives forever.
I found that I had immense sympathy for all the major characters of Evelyn, Geoffrey and Otto. The war changed their lives and Geoffrey, especially, was under immense pressure to "turn a blind eye" during his weekly camp inspection. Having a reserved occupation, he still had to work for the war effort and, indeed, there are great little slogans peppered throughout the text, warning people to think before they travelled, for example, as well as those related to virtually every aspect of everyday life. The author paints a wonderful portrait of Brighton under threat of invasion. Of radio broadcasts from the reassurance of the BBC announcers to the propaganda of Lord Haw Haw. Of shortages, collections and rumours. This is expertly realised in the life of son Philip, who roams the town with his friends, creating bizarre fantasies of Hitler visiting the Pavilion and looking for scapegoats. At times, Evelyn is a slightly frustrating heroine; Geoffrey begs her to talk to him and you do feel that she could have solved many of her issues and worries by just voicing them, rather than loitering in doorways unable to express her feelings. However, she is a product of her class and education and eminently human in her relationships. Overall, this is an excellent portrait of a time and place, when England (and Brighton) waited and suspicion was in the air. Longlisted for the Booker, I will be intrigued to see whether it makes the shortlist.
on 21 September 2015
One day I will learn not to read any book that has made the Booker Prize long list.
At first I was pleased because there was not too much dialogue but then I got annoyed when half a dozen words were used when one would have been sufficient.
For the first few chapters I would have given the book 3* but after that I felt it deteriorated and I would only have given it 1* so I have given a rather generous 2* overall.
The characters were unrealistic and boring
There were several anachronisms
Penicillin ,paracetamol,loo have already been mentioned but also people did not say in the 1940s"Come over to mine" nor did they eat fish and chips from cartons but from old newspapers.
There are still some people around who remember that time,why did the author not ask them what it was like during the war.?
Do people actually go to University to learn to write like this?
Is this creative writing?
on 29 January 2016
In an exhibition at Hove Museum a few years ago there was a map of where World War II bombs fell on Brighton and Hove, then two separate towns. It was quite a surprise for someone who grew up there in the 1950s to see so many bomb-sites and to learn that the town was on a home front-line. "Unexploded" is set in 1940-41, the Brighton of vegetable plots in the town gardens, beach huts moved and filled with stones, and razor wire closing the beach to inhabitants and acting as a deterrent to the feared and expected German invaders. And, it was also, apparently, a Brighton of pettiness and unthinking, ugly prejudice against Jews, together with grim humour, as women considered “the new Unity Mitford look" to welcome Hitler. All of this comes across well in Alison Macleod’s novel and she catches the odd mix that came from Brighton’s history and the present danger: “When the nation was stoical, Brighton was reckless.”
The novel concentrates on four characters, Evelyn and Geoffrey Beaumont, Philip, their eight-year old, and Otto Gottlieb, a German-Jew internee. The strange atmosphere of the town is particularly heightened in the story of Philip who, with his friends, roams the town and is, at once, in terrible fear of the Nazi invasion (his father lets him listen to Lord Haw Haw and then his unpleasant friend, Orson, gets a crystal set to allow them to listen in even more) and fascinated by Hitler. Orson pursues a vendetta against Jews and Philip tags along. Macleod describes the boys looking as though they are soldiers on manoeuvres as they play, in mud-camouflage, on the stumps of the pier.
Macleod’s use of four different points of view works quite well, though giving the pre-history to three of the four main characters over-packs the story. Virginia Wolfe features in the story and, in this respect, her fiction is far less forthcoming than “Unexploded”. This wouldn't be a shortcoming had the present of the novel in wartime Brighton and four individuals been so fascinating. This is perhaps one reason why it is Philip’s story that works best. One consequence of packing the characters’ backgrounds and directing us to too many angles is that there is too much going on by the time we reach the conclusion, to say nothing of the thriller dimension prefigured in the title. Macleod has to work overtime in freighting one of these threads – that of art, itself – with too much power in order to draw her novel to a close.
on 16 January 2016
This is not, in my opinion, ‘a novel of staggering elegance and beauty’, as one of the many misleading cover blurbs claims: in fact the praise is so blatantly overdone as to be laughable.
I also found some of the ludicrously strained metaphors unintentionally amusing (‘cirrus cloud drifted like the ragged end of a dying man’s last thought’ Really?) along with the stereotypical, caricatured and cliché-ridden characters and situations.
Not what one would expect from a professor of contemporary fiction, though this novel is far from contemporary, being set in Brighton as the threat of Nazi invasion looms over the town in the summer of 1940. The book suffers from a common fault with historical fiction whereby the author, having done lots of research, crams in as many period details as possible. So the boy doesn’t just wheel his bike, he wheels his ‘Hercules’ bike, for example, while ‘No one could reassure the nation as assuredly as Alvar Liddell, dressed in his BBC announcer’s dinner jacket.’ We’ve all seen that photo.
The problem is that by attempting to convey the atmosphere of a particular time and place through overuse of historical detail, we are left with an equally shallow portrayal of all the characters, who fail to come alive and therefore fail to attract the reader’s sympathy, something that a professor of literature ought to understand. Some of the scenes in which the nine-year-old son plays war games with his mates I found to be totally unconvincing, as if the author had taken them straight from a Dan Dare comic or something. The whole thing feels to me that, instead of writing a story and fitting it carefully into the time and the place, she’s taken the setting as the main theme and tried to fit a story into it.
But despite these complaints I stuck with the book, so it can’t be all bad: there is some good writing here, a short chapter in the middle, for example, that describes the effects of a bombing raid on a residential street. And by the second half I was actually getting into the story: it improves quite a lot towards the end. It’s just a pity it doesn’t start off that way. Perhaps if my expectations hadn’t been raised by the cover blurbs, I’d have been less critical.
on 13 November 2013
What is going on in this book?She's done loads of research but it is full of factual inaccuracies(gasoline? paracetamol?penicillin?) and some goppingly silly metaphors.Bombs NEVER fall 'like autumn leaves' do they?
It's not a case of not liking the characters...I just don't believe in any of them.The sub plot about the boys wanting to get hold of a real Jew is totally unnecessary to the story and there are way too many 'purple passages'. That this novel was written by someone who actually teaches Creative Writing is well, terrifying!Where was her editor? Asleep?
I've said it is really a romantic fiction partly because that is the real story(my bourgeois marriage is a sham;I must experience the genuine passion of shagging a foreign artist) and honestly,the straining-for-effect in the overloaded prose had me wincing.
What grieves me most of all is that,among Amazon reviewers,this bad book scores almost as well as Sarah Waters' wonderful 'The Night Watch'.
Do yourself a favour and read that book-not this unconvincing confection.
on 11 August 2014
I enjoyed this book but it did make me feel uncomfortable at times. Well done to the author to bring in issues which do not always find their way into the romanticised view we often get of the tensions of the period.
on 2 May 2015
Absobing, atmospheric and good story.
Author writes very well. Hope she writes another on the same lines