Peroxide and Paracetamol

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Unexploded 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.

MacLeod’s main characters are the Beaumonts: dependable Geoffrey, whose mother died in an asylum, so that he longs for a solid conventional life, and clever, arty Evelyn, in revolt against her oppressively snobbish parents. Her choice of Geoffrey, a bank manager, secured their disapproval, since he didn’t drink enough to fit in at her father’s club. The young couple’s decision to do without a live-in maid particularly scandalised her mother. Their son, Philip, has reached the grand old age of eight without being sent away to school (‘Think of the opportunities already lost,’ Evelyn’s mother laments), so it’s clear the rebellion continues. Now Geoffrey has been made superintendent of the camp that has taken over the town’s racecourse, where those who fit the description of ‘enemy aliens’ are interned. The head office of his bank has instructed personnel to disperse each branch’s cash holdings in the event of an invasion. He will be expected to take some of the money to a place of safety, travelling with four chosen men on military passes. As a precaution he has buried two hundred pounds in the garden, along with (as Evelyn discovers when she digs it up) two cyanide pills rather than the family photograph he thought it more tactful to mention.

From the characters’ point of view they are caught up in a desperate defiance of Hitler, but from the reader’s, necessarily, they are taking part in World War Two (1939-45), its end date fixed, its outcome known. It’s not easy to put aside our knowledge and inhabit their innocence. In The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst went to some trouble to shake the patronising certainty of retrospect, setting the first part of his novel before the First World War, the second part in the 1920s. Readers had to piece together what had happened in the interval, a lesser disruption than anything experienced by the characters, but preferable to being served up horrors on an orderly schedule unavailable at the time.

It can seem that MacLeod wants to enlarge the scope of hindsight rather than restrict it. A sentence like ‘It was to be the last Royal Pavilion Midsummer Ball until the peace’ holds out (from our point of view) a reasonable expectation of resumption, while for people at the time it meant the indefinite and very likely permanent suspension of the life they had known. When the first fifty-kilogramme bomb is dropped on the town, she adds: ‘Seven others would follow, whistling terror,’ but at the heart of the terror must have been not knowing how many more there would be.

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