It’s always fun to try to predict what’s going to make it onto the Man Booker longlist but I think most people were caught out this year. Of my own predictions only Colum McCann’s Transatlantic made the grade so I thought it was time that I read another longlisted novel. Set against the backdrop of a Brighton primed for invasion, Alison Macleod’s Unexploded follows a single year from May 1940 seen through the eyes of the Beaumont family.
Geoffrey, stalwart of the Brighton middle classes, is a bank manager now overseeing the newly established enemy alien camp. His wife, Evelyn, is appalled at the sudden prospect of their possible separation, her comfortable assumption that Geoffrey’s reserved occupation would protect them torn away while Philip, their eight-year-old son, is giddy with the excitement of it all. Theirs is a marriage once passionate now constrained by fear of pregnancy after a difficult childbirth that almost killed Evelyn. When she discovers it is built on a false assumption, Evelyn and Geoffrey are no longer on sure ground: Evelyn had thought that Geoffrey’s tolerant kindness would stand between her and her parents’ snobbishness, their casual anti-Semitism and closed minds, but a chance conversation reveals the truth of his own bigotry. When she decides to make a role for herself reading to the prisoners at the camp she meets Otto Gottlieb, a German Jewish artist. What begins as antipathy becomes something else entirely.
MacLeod captures the jittery anticipation, the unpredictability and passion of people no longer quite themselves in the face of danger. Her research is woven lightly through her narrative – the exhibition of Guernica at the Whitechapel, the Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts – and her descriptions of the devastation wreaked by bombing and the chilling crimes perpetrated against children witnessed by Otto in Sachsenhausen concentration camp are starkly memorable but the occasional anachronism – towelling robes, ‘rubbers’ for condoms – jars. It’s a novel that may well be a deserving contender for the Man Booker but I’m afraid I’m still in a sulk that Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life was left out. Shortlist to be announced on September 10th.