… She raised the tin. McDougalls Self-Raising Flour. The lid was difficult to prise off. Had Geoffrey hammered it shut? Her nails couldn’t manage it, and the spade was too large. She slipped back into the shuttered gloom of the kitchen. The cutlery tray lay on the sideboard. A butter knife popped the lid.
Twenty ten-pound notes.
No revolver. And no photo either, unless it was tucked inside the Lloyds’ envelope. She slid her nail under the flap and stared.
At the bottom, two small green capsules gleamed like bullets.
The fishing boats are bullet-marked and back from Dunkirk. Brighton is braced for the Wehrmacht to land on its beaches at any moment. Should this happen, Evelyn Beaumont’s husband Geoffrey plans to escort his bank’s assets to an off-shore place of safety, quite possibly abandoning his wife and son to German occupation. As a precaution, he has buried a tin for Evelyn – containing money, mostly – under a shrub in the gardens outside their home in Park Crescent. In the dead of night, spade in hand, Evelyn makes her startling discovery.
This is only the end of the beginning …
Geoffrey combines his duties at the bank with the role of Superintendent of the internment camp for enemy aliens at Brighton racecourse. Evelyn combines her wife-and-mother tasks with home front activities with the WI – all the while weighed down with a growing sense of helplessness and fear. Geoffrey’s revelation of his plan plunges their marriage into crisis.
The arrival in their lives of Otto Gottlieb, German Jew, enemy alien and ‘degenerate’ artist will have an irrevocable effect on both of them
Other members of the cast include Philip - Geoffrey and Evelyn’s son. Philip’s domineering pal, Orson. Leah: in Warsaw, a pianist; in Brighton, a prostitute. And Brighton itself – since this novel has as sure a sense of place as any I’ve read in a long time. (My Brighton-based colleagues have loved the finer details of location and period.)
There are also walk-on parts for the Bishop of Chichester, Virginia Woolf and a tortoise called Clarence.
If you want to know how they all link up and what happens to them you’ll have to read Alison MacLeod‘s book and listen to Book At Bedtime over the next fortnight.
Unexploded was published last autumn to very positive reviews (of which Viv Groskop’s piece in the Observer is but one) and made the long list for the Man Booker prize in 2013. It’s as elegant in construction as Park Crescent itself, and has more than cyanide pills lurking with menace under its topsoil: English anti-Semitism; betrayal; the psychological damage of war. Love, in this novel, is potentially as dangerous as any UXB.
And it’s more intricately plotted that it might first appear, as I discovered to my cost when abridging it for radio. We had to lose about 75,000 words, so to get the full historical experience of Brighton at war (well-researched, lightly-worn) you should turn to the book. What remains is an intense and moving story of what happens to people’s relationships when placed under extreme pressure. Emma Fielding brings all her expertise to the reading. All her characterisations are good, but I particularly like her rendering of Otto. It may also be a while before you can listen to a certain piece of music without thinking of this story …I first came across Alison’s work a few years ago when, unable to sleep, I heard Tim Pigott-Smith reading ‘The Heart Of Denis Noble’ (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2011) at some odd time of day or night. The following year, a tale about the Tottenham riots, ‘Solo, A Cappella’, sliced through the Sunday night airwaves as if Radio 4 had been hijacked by a rooftop pirate station. In both stories, Alison works with the energy generated by slapping the need for story-telling and solid facts very hard together.
To some extent this is true of Unexploded, too. Only this time it works with all the colour and scale of a church mural.