By Alison MacLeod
Even the highest of highbrow book snobs will confess in unguarded moments to enjoying some favourite flavour of popular fiction, and if you look closely you’ll find it’s often the case that the most critically successful literary novels are crossbred with commercial genres. Formula helps gives these books an extra bit of narrative backbone, and makes them more accessible to a larger audience.
This is especially true for historical romance, which has long been this country’s default mode for serious, prize-winning fiction. Alison MacLeod, who was raised in Montreal and Halifax and now lives in England, knows the genre well. Holding firm to the conventions while adding a few twists of its own, her new novel Unexploded (longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize) is a romantic period piece that tells a compelling and complex tale of forbidden love.
The heroine, Evelyn Beaumont, is an upper-class British woman married to a very proper bank manager named Geoffrey. The setting is Brighton in 1940-1941, and as the events take place the air is thick with anticipation of a German invasion.
But while Hitler stares across the Channel, all is not well on the home front. The magic has gone out of the Beaumont marriage. Evelyn is a passionate woman with a keen interest in modern art and modern fiction (she particularly admires Virginia Woolf, and even attends one of Woolf’s lectures on the “new” novel). Geoffrey is, well, a banker. He is also colour-blind and can no longer get it up for his wife. But despite these incompatibilities they have settled into a matrimonial routine that they both seem to find some comfort and stability in.
Into this mix one Otto Gottlieb is introduced. Otto is a German exile who winds up in a labour camp supervised by Geoffrey. He is also an artist — in particular a practitioner of the kind of “degenerate” modern art condemned by the Nazis. Evelyn meets him while volunteering to read Virginia Woolf to the inmates of the camp, and immediately a spark is struck. Otto, though dangerous and damaged, seems sensitive, thoughtful, and aware to Evelyn. In return, he recognizes model material in her surreptitiously spied naked form
Meanwhile, Geoffrey begins to stray and takes up with a prostitute in London.
The path of love never runs smooth in novels, and there are some especially odd twists in this one. But the plot is neatly — almost too neatly — handled, and MacLeod does a great job capturing the confusion of passions that control her characters. Evelyn takes from Woolf the axiom that we are all many people, a theme that is explored with sharp psychological insight and deft dramatic juggling.
Where the novel gets into trouble — and this is where most historical romances struggle — is with its heavy-handed moral lesson. Otto isn’t just a victim of Nazi art critics; he is a Jew, and a former inmate of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Complicating things further, Geoffrey is an anti-Semite with an inclination toward the politics of Oswald Mosely and the radio broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw. Geoffrey is also the kind of guy who, when criticized by Evelyn for the way he runs his labour camp, defends himself by saying that he’s only following the rules.
We understand. Really.
This triangle would involve irony enough, but MacLeod goes even further, making Geoffrey’s mistress another refugee Jew. Finally, in case you’re still missing the point, there is a subplot involving Evelyn’s son falling in with a Brighton boy who is both a raving anti-Semite and a murderous juvenile psychopath.
Almost every novel set during the Second World War has anti-Semitism as a major theme now, given how the historical meaning of that conflict has become centered more and more on the Holocaust. But even so, it is a note introduced so repetitively here as to distract us from the rest of the story. This is a shame because MacLeod is a very good writer and it feels as though she’s saddled herself unnecessarily with driving home such an obvious political message. Somewhat surprisingly for a historical romance, it’s the romantic conventions that are the least formulaic parts of Unexploded, while history itself is presented in more predictable terms.
Review first published in the Toronto Star November 10, 2013.