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.
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 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.
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 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 5 September 2013
Oh dear: here I go again with a fairly negative review. Let me tell you of my reading preferences.
Of nineteenth century literature, I am a huge fan of Thomas Hardy, and also like Trollope and Austen. My favourite reads from the twentieth century are Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf. More recently, I have enjoyed the writings of Per Petterson, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Tracy Chevalier. Hardy is my number one.
All of these authors make wonderful use of the English language. Their descriptive passages are always relevant and succinct, effective and sumptuous. Alison Macleod has written such passages in 'Unexploded'. Unfortunately she has written too many; some, particularly in the first 100 pages, with such ridiculous similes, that they actually detract from the narrative. You don't need to be too wordy to be worthy.
And then there's that other distraction, the bane of many a modern novel, the disrupted time line. I don't mind doing some work in a novel - often I enjoy it for just that - but when it interrupts a flow, it can be both annoying and confusing. The additional device of chopping and changing, within a chapter, between one scene of action and another is similarly frustrating.
This novel never really gets to grips with either its subject matter or its characters. There are too many irrelevancies: the lives of the son, Philip, and his friends; the red herring of the green capsules; the butcher. Yet we don't learn enough about the internment camp, or the character of Otto Godlove.
There is plenty of period detail, and Alison has obviously done her homework, but there is sometimes too much, especially in the form of lists. But some of 'Unexploded', particularly the middle section, is beautifully written. What she needed was for one of the friends whom she thanks, or the publishers, to point out the faults, and help her to edit. It continues to annoy me that modern authors feel they have to list their mentors, especially when they have not criticised enough. If authors give thanks at all it should be to their readers: thank you for buying my book, I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much/ more as/than I have in writing it.
On a personal note, if Alison read this review, I am the man who your mate (author) Ray Robinson photographed with your book in a pub in Matlock. If you print off the photo', you can take it down to your local and throw darts at it.
I will never write a novel as good as 'Unexploded', but my critical gaze is first rate. Good luck with the next one!
Right-o. Booker longlist or no, this one bored me. Pretty much every minute was excruciating tedium.
On the plus side, Unexploded apparently conveys a very strong sense of time and place. It's true that Brighton in the early years of the war makes a pleasant change from inner city London or the middle of the English countryside. There is a feeling of trying to cling onto normal life; the restrictions and privations assumed initially to be temporary. We see the last of private petrol; the last onions; the last days on the beach. Piece by piece, normal life is dismantled and the luxuries of yesterday are turned into the necessities of tomorrow. The racecourse becomes an internment camp; metal is scrapped for bombs; the grammar school becomes a convalescence hospital.
And in the midst of the chaos and falling bombs, Geoffrey and Evelyn have marital problems.
Every now and then, things threaten to get interesting. There are mentions of Mosley and Lord Haw-Haw. Geoffrey and Evelyn's son Philip looks set to get involved in dangerous and exciting situations. There are a couple of suicide pills floating around. There's a mysterious German who turned up with tales of torture in a German KZ camp and a stack of forged banknotes. But ultimately they all fizzle out. Damp squibs, every one.
I am told - but don't know from first hand experience - that the narrative style owes much to Virginia Woolf. Indeed La Woolf gets several mentions and a cameo role. Alas, the significance of this passed me by completely. Rather than elevating the ordinary into a great poetic vision, this novel seems to suck the monumental down into the abyss of ordinariness. We don't care what happens to the lead characters. The only half-captivating character is Leah, a character very much of secondary importance.
It's a pity. The writing is competent and flows well. The trouble is that, for this reader at least, Alison Macleod doesn't have anything very interesting to say.
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.
on 16 April 2016
At the start of this novel we are assaulted by the fear and heat that gripped Brighton in 1940 as they wait for Hitler’s invasion. The author’s gift is to place us, the readers, in that place, vividly described, feeling the horror that is about to unfold both in Evelyn’s life and that of her husband and child. We are shocked by the attitudes of the time; racism, xenophobia and a class system that ranks and separates people.
Evelyn’s discovery of a tin buried in the garden by her husband, Geoffrey, is the beginning of the break up of their marriage. She starts to understand that his view of life, which she had originally admired, is not as it seemed. She also recognises her own culpability in taking on the views of her parents, views which she finds abhorrent.
What we discover of the camp on Race Hill is appalling, the treatment of aliens as they were described. The introduction of Otto, the German Jewish painter, is the catalyst for much of the rest of the action. I was delighted to find that he is based on a real person to some extent.
The research involved in creating such a vivid image of this place and time is worn lightly. The language is exemplary; on first reading I hurried in trepidation to discover the ending, to understand the plot. On second reading I enjoyed even more the subtleties of analogy, metaphor and simile which breathe life into the writing.
This novel will be promoted or lent widely, but on the firm understanding that it comes back to me.
on 23 October 2013
I live in Brighton and so was looking forward to reading about the effects of WWII on familiar places and people who lived there during it. I'm also a fan of of dramas set in that era so was certain I was in for a treat. How disappointing, then, to find that I really couldn't be bothered to finish the novel and the reason was that it was peopled with unsympathetic, boring, irritating characters, none of whom seemed to like or care about one another. I found the continual, tortuous examination by Evelyn of her feelings toward Geoffrey, her husband, excruciating - for example:
"Who was Geoffrey? Lately she'd felt herself almost gag on the question. One evening as their ritual in front of the wireless began, she'd actually had to rush from the front room to the lavatory to retch, as if there were a single answer she couldn't quite keep down; as if truth lay like an infection in her gut."
- there are pages and pages of this angst, minutely detailing her loathing.
And the author tells us "She wanted all of it over, gone..." and so did I. Far too many good books calling to waste any more time on this one.