Unexploded is the third book in this year’s attempt to make my way through the Booker Long list. It is set in Brighton during the second world war. The main protagonist is Evelyn, an intelligent young woman who gave up the chance of university for marriage to bank manager Geoffrey – a match her parents, from next door Hove think is beneath her ( anyone who knows anyone who has lived in ‘Hove’ will relate to this). The pair, who have a son called Phillip, have a reasonable comfortable life before the war begins, but its onset starts to expose cracks in their relationship.
Whilst Geoffrey is drawn more and more into the home front support of the war, becoming the commander of a local “enemy aliens” internment camp, Evelyn through her love of art and literature (in particular, Virginia Wolfe) starts to question if things really are as black and white as life in wartime Brighton, with its undercurrent of local anti-semitism, would have her believe. As problems between her and Geoffrey get exacerbated, both turn to others to try and reignite their desires. Meanwhile their son is caught in the middle and mostly overlooked by parents too caught up in their own worlds to make sure he is safe and knows what he should and should not be doing.
This is a nicely written book. It feels well researched. It paints a vivid picture of life in a seaside town during the war and, in particular, of one which could be an Nazi invasion point.
It also captures nicely the battle between a free thinking, art loving, bohemian world and one where even when fighting on the side of the ‘good guys’ more authoritarian thoughts and desires take hold and some admiration and agreement with some of the goals of the enemy also permeate polite society.
And yet … I didn’t really care. I finished this book, with the same feeling I have gotten over the years finishing books by Evelyn’s heroine, Virginia Wolfe, underwhelmed. I did like the (hopefully intentional) Dad’s Army in joke of making Geoffrey a Bank Manager and then getting him involved in the home front, and there is no denying that there is some wonderful prose on show throughout the novel, but I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.
Recommendation: Do not shortlist