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Unexploded by Alison Macleod

Unexploded by Alison Macleod Brighton is one of those places on my “wish to visit” list. It keeps getting bumped off and I’ve not yet been to this city on England’s south coast. But after reading the novel Unexploded by Alison Macleod I think I’ll move it up on the list.

Geographically Brighton was on the front line as a potential target for the German Luftwaffe, and many of those who lived in Brighton during the Second World War remember vividly the fear they felt during those years. Life became smaller and more insular with restrictions of movement and curfews, from 6pm to 9 am when residents could not leave their homes. There were defensive sand bag trenches along the coast - the beach was out of bounds – laid with mines and barbed wire. Two of the magnificent piers were demolished.

A radio program, widely listened to, by William Joyce, an American born broadcaster of German propaganda dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw”, declared that Hitler would make Brighton his headquarters in England, and therefore would not bomb the Royal Pavilion.

There was, still, a very real fear of both a German landing and bombing – and when bombing eventually came it was devastating. In September1940 the local cinema, full of children, was bombed on a Saturday morning and in November 1940 the Royal Pavilion and the Dome were seriously damaged. The bombing of Park Crescent as described in Unexploded was very real.

So we have very real wartime history and the experience of the residents of Brighton woven into this novel. Alison Macleod, a transplanted Canadian, has done her research. Set into this time and place are her characters, Evelyn and Geoffrey, and their son Philip. Men whose positions were considered essential services were not drafted but were expected to do their part, and Geoffrey Beaumont, as the local bank manager, takes on the position of Superintendent of the nearby enemy alien camp. His wife Evelyn does not work outside the home but takes on the volunteer position of reading to some of those imprisoned while Philip is at school.

They all live with the fear of German invasion, listening to the doom and gloom of Lord Haw-Haw, the news as irresistible as it is dreaded. Philip sneaks off with school friends to the barricaded beaches – Evelyn attends a lecture by Virginia Woolf, an author who lives nearby. Geoffrey prepares for an invasion by burying money in the back garden - along with a more menacing item he does not disclose to this family but one that takes on importance in the progress of the novel.

As a reader who was once obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her work, I loved the fact that Evelyn is reading The Waves aloud to a prisoner in the camp, and makes reference to her throughout the novel. When Mrs. Woolf does not appear for a talk about her new novel, The Years, in April 1942, sadly I knew why.

People behave differently in wartime when life may be short, and both Geoffrey and Evelyn find themselves involved in activities that they would never have remotely considered in earlier times.

But I will tell you no more – one of the wonderful things about this novel was that I knew nothing about it before I started – the cover attracted me – and the fact that it was a novel set in war time England and was longlisted for the 2013 Booker prize. I enjoyed discoveries I made about wartime Brighton and the lives of those who lived at that time. The characters Alison Macleod peopled her novel with were delightful to spend time with. What more can one ask of a novel – Unexploded is a jolly good read.

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