A fine Brighton novel is put through our literary mincer

It was my turn to choose a book for the reading group.

Unexploded, coverIt was my turn to choose a book for the reading group I have been a member of for 23 years. Our subject is contemporary literary fiction, and we take it in turns to nominate a title and host the meeting.

As our convenor amusingly reminded us when we met: “We’re not here to praise the book. We’re here to criticise it, and, if necessary, to tear it to pieces.” We have duly put through our critical mincer works by the most eminent or fashionable authors: Murakami, McEwan and Marías, Pamuk and Petterson, DeLillo and Duras, Barnes, Banks and Boyd.

I chose Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded (2013), set in wartime Brighton. Canadian-born, MacLeod has lived in Brighton since 2000, and teaches creative writing at Chichester.

I thought everyone would enjoy this, but the responses of the nine of us who met proved mixed. While a few had found it an excellent read, others were lukewarm. I confess my own enthusiasm for it deflated slightly over the course of the evening.

Unexploded wartime bombYoung Evelyn, from Brunswick Square, meets Geoffrey Beaumont at the Royal Pavilion Midsummer Ball in 1926. Married, they reside in Park Crescent, with one child, Philip, whose birth nearly kills her. By 1940, with the stress of war and the threat of invasion, their marriage is beginning to unravel. Geoffrey, a bank manager, is made superintendent of a camp up on the racecourse where “enemy aliens” are interned. (One of our older members, who remembers the war, queried whether an Oxford-educated man would have been a bank manager, and whether a bank manager, rather than someone with military experience, would have been in charge of such a camp.)

While Geoffrey is becoming infatuated with a Jewish refugee pianist somewhere near the station (ironically, since he is an anti-semite), Evelyn gets involved with an interned Jewish “degenerate” artist. This character, Otto Gottlieb - based on the real-life Hans Feibusch - is commissioned by Bishop Bell to paint murals in St Wilfred’s Church in Elm Grove. (We felt Otto spoke implausibly fluent English, had implausibly survived too many horrors and mishaps, and was generally too obviously set up as the book’s positive life-force and lodestar.)

Unexploded wartime bomb, PatchamPhilip, meanwhile, running wild amid the chaos of war, gets in with some older boys, including the sinister Orson, whose games nudge murder. The increasingly-separate existences of the three family members, each nursing secrets, is nicely evoked.

Around the central figures swirls a large and sometimes confusing secondary cast: Evelyn’s snobbish mother; Sylvia the extrovert socialite; Mrs Dalrymple, the eccentric neighbour, and Clarence, her tortoise (Orson’s first victim); Mr Hatchett, the butcher, and Mr Pirazzini, the tailor; Lieutenant Lowell, of the bomb disposal unit, with his pinned-up sleeve; and even Virginia Woolf, lecturing to the WEA.

The period evocation is mostly convincing (but the fugitive Dutch seaplane that landed in May 1940 could not have carried “over a hundred geezers”; the organisers of Woolf’s second lecture would have heard of her death by mid-April 1941; and Brighton to Chichester is not “forty miles”). And Macleod is good on significant specifics: a coat’s torn armpit, a cracked monocle, a blood mark on the ceiling, a spade standing in a flower-bed, a cyanide pill that resembles a liquorice torpedo, a lilac envelope.

Yet somehow, we felt, the book was too like its title: long on fuse, short on bang. (I was waiting for the bomb to fall on Park Crescent: but that occurred outside the timeframe, in 1942.) We thought it too schematically well-crafted for its own good.

It may make the list of best Brighton novels, but in wider literary terms our mincer group found it wanting.