Set in Brighton in 1940, Alison MacLeod's novel Unexploded has a pleasingly persuasive period cadence. The style is oddly formal, point of view shunts between characters, an omniscient narrator drops us into different character's heads and experiences without warning, and MacLeod has an unfashionable fondness for adverbs, all of which combine to situate the novel precisely in its time. MacLeod is at her best deftly undermining our expectations of the characters. No-one is quite as they seem and the novel's title, suggestive of the combustible energies between the characters, suggests the care with which they have to conduct their relationships.
The novel is not simply a period piece though. It deals with themes that are absolutely contemporary: allegiance, race, cultural misunderstanding, and terror. It suggests that what remained unexploded after the second world war, remains a persistent threat. And it achieves this with rather more grace and elegance than the tale it uses as a vehicle, for the story itself suffers at times from a curious ennui, notably during the Virginia Woolf lecture. It is a shame that this moment didn't quite come off as the character of Evelyn owes much to Woolf's writing, and it was a nice acknowledgement of that to have Woolf make a cameo appearance.
Notwithstanding minor quibbles, MacLeod has a distinct and original voice. She writes with powerful intensity about relationships and desire, most vividly of all the tragic desire to be loved which so often in this novel goes awry, with devastating consequences.
Unexploded is a novel to be admired for its intricate plotting, its psychological acuity and above all for the elegance with which MacLeod intersplices the devastating into the mundane, such that neither lose their impact.