Peroxide and Paracetamol
- BuyUnexploded by Alison MacLeod
Hamish Hamilton, 340 pp, £16.99, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 241 14263 9
Hindsight is the way we make sense of the world, and the events and impressions of the morning are reworked any number of times before evening, with the result that any historical novel is bound to be as processed as spray-on cheese. What makes a narrative come alive is the Stendhal touch, a flick of the tail that propels the reader up past the rapids to a pool where things haven’t happened yet and Waterloo is just a place name. Alison MacLeod’s new novel sets out to defamiliarise almost the opposite situation, an inevitable conflict that didn’t actually happen. Unexploded takes place in Brighton over the course of the year 1940-41, when an invasion by Hitler’s forces was universally expected and the town likely to be his first port of call.
Vol. 35 No. 20 · 24 October 2013
Adam Mars-Jones is astonished that Nigel Balchin’s novel The Small Back Room was in print ‘before the first flying bomb landed on London’ (LRB, 12 September). Published on 6 December 1943, Balchin’s novel was indeed in print a full six months before the first V1 rocket detonated in the capital (in Mile End on 13 June 1944). However, Balchin’s prescience doesn’t seem quite so astonishing when one knows that he was employed by the army as assistant director of biological research when he was writing The Small Back Room. Three days after the book was published, his department was absorbed into another and he became scientific adviser to the Army Council, where he remained for the duration. SAAC dealt with weapons and means of waging war, activities that Balchin had also been involved in before his move.
The bombs described in The Small Back Room differ from the V1 and V2 rockets in one important particular. The explosives that have to be defused in the novel are designed specifically as anti-personnel devices. They are booby-trapped, and kill both the civilians who pick them up, having found them lying unexploded on the ground and inattentive bomb-disposal experts who fail to spot the device’s second (hidden) fuse.