In Unexploded, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, life in 1940 Brighton is tense and terrifying. Following the German invasion of France, the English city becomes focused on a potential incursion from across the Channel. Simultaneously, former debutante Evelyn Beaumont begins to second-guess her 13-year marriage to middle-class bank manager Geoffrey, after he unhesitatingly accepts a position as superintendent of a local internment camp.
The majority of the inmates aren’t “foreign enemies,” but refugees from various parts of Europe and immigrants who have lived most of their lives in England. Geoffrey’s stiff-upper-lipped exterior belies an ugly anti-Semitic streak, especially in his irrational hatred and mistreatment of a doomed artist named Otto. A German-Jewish refugee who appears in the camp, Otto’s presence becomes inextricably tied to the Beaumonts’ family life.
Meanwhile, Evelyn and Geoffrey’s eight-year-old son, Phillip, confronts his changing world with innocent trepidation. His wartime childhood is, inevitably, filled with a young boy’s dark imaginative games and obsessions (he continually draws Spitfire fighter planes), and with his parents distracted by their own troubles, young Phillip’s social life becomes dominated by dangerously misguided friends.
The adroit prose of author Alison MacLeod, who was born in Canada and now lives in the U.K., effectively establishes the slightly surreal tone of comfortable lives stripped bare by the prospect of war. The book teems with the excruciating sense that the parameters of life have changed in ways that are yet to be revealed. In this sense, MacLeod’s historical fiction reminds one of nothing so much as a chilling post-apocalyptic novel.
Amid this oppressive atmosphere, the Second World War becomes an effective backdrop for the book’s inexorably unfolding domestic betrayals. The novel proceeds with a palpable sense of dread, but when MacLeod introduces the biblical story of David and Bathsheba as a comment on the Beaumonts’ strained relationship, the comparison feels inappropriately grandiose. Unexploded works best when it is at its most poignant: as a portrait of a family trying to sort out values and morality in a world where both have been turned upside down.