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How Alison Macleod’s novel ‘Unexploded’ was inspired by the Brighton Pavilion

PUBLISHED: 11:35 10 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:35 10 April 2014

Alison Macleod - credit Kate Macleod

Alison Macleod - credit Kate Macleod

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Alison Macleod is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at Chichester University. Her third novel, Unexploded, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Here, fellow Sussex author Suzanne Joinson finds out how the novel was inspired by the fantastic nature of Brighton Pavilion

The bookThe book

The domes and minarets of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton cast magical shadows throughout Sussex author Alison MacLeod’s novel Unexploded. Set at the height of the Second World War in May 1940, when the threat of invasion was real and the South Coast was beginning to seem very vulnerable, the story follows the fortunes and trials of Evelyn and Geoffrey Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip.

Alison decided to set the novel in Brighton when she realised that the city is strangely underwritten in contemporary literature. “I love the fantastic quality of the Pavilion and I wanted to bring out that imaginative, self-made and self-invented aspect of Brighton.” She had been living in Brighton for five years when she decided to tackle this difficult period in the history of the city. As she was writing about serious preoccupations in the book, she was very keen to balance them with the lushness of Sussex, from the coastline and Park Crescent in Brighton to the Downs and Chichester.

Meticulously researched and full of engaging 1940s detail such as the drinking of pink gins and children playing in the penny arcades, the tense atmosphere of the time and the insidious fear regarding events happening just across the Channel are exquisitely conveyed. Alison researched her novel at the Imperial War Museum and used local sources such as the Sussex University Mass Observation Archive and oral history publisher Queenspark Books. She spent a full year researching before beginning to write the novel. “Once you have an idea it’s like a magnet and that is why I write, because of the magic of the connectivity, it makes you feel connected into something possibly bigger than you are. That is what has always kept me going as a writer.”

As she uncovered stories about wartime Brighton she came across some fascinating, if terrible, details. The young character Philip becomes obsessed with the apparently real rumours that Hitler was considering the Royal Pavilion as his British headquarters. There was an internment camp set up on the racecourse, and when Evelyn begins to volunteer at the camp she meets, and falls in love with, Otto Gottlieb, a Jewish-German intern with an intriguing past.

Secrets and betrayals simmer throughout the book and are handled deftly. Many scenes reflect the reality of domestic life contrasted against the huge, historically significant actions that were taking place on a wider world-scale. “I am really interested in writing the intimate, but I am also interested politically. I think wars do get into the cracks and crannies of our home.” It is this clever positioning of the specific against the general that pulls readers into the intimacy of the marriage, and leads us through the believable tensions that arise in times of stress and conflict.

As Evelyn gradually becomes disturbed by her husband’s inherent anti-Semitism, he begins to develop a relationship with a prostitute whom he suspects of being Jewish. The complexities and hypocrisies of English society at this time are gently exposed. MacLeod is Canadian and originally came to Sussex more than 20 years ago, marrying into an English family. It was an experience which, she says, gave her a fascinating training in reading British society codes. Perhaps it is this dual-nature of MacLeod’s identity, belonging to Sussex but also with an outsider’s vantage-point that allows her to examine difficult subjects. With a clear eye she touches upon British collusion and explores many of the prejudices and assumptions prevalent during the war.

Alison acknowledges the stylistic influence of Graham Greene and sites Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair as two of her favourite novels of all time. It is Virginia Woolf, though, who gets her own cameo. “I looked at photographs of her from that period to get a sense of her style. One of the first things I read that really touched me was that boys used to make fun of her when she got off the train at Lewes. To them she looked eccentric, but she cared very much about her appearance.”

A friend told her that Woolf had been planning to give a talk in Brighton a few days before she tragically drowned herself in the Sussex River Ouse, but it was mysteriously cancelled. In 1940, full of the dread of potential invasion and dealing with her own personal despair, Woolf gave a lecture in Brighton called ‘The Leaning Tower’ and Alison uses this lecture in the novel to great effect. “The essay is fairly bleak, but she pulls out the hope that literature can change things, break down divides.” Woolf’s other texts The Years and The Waves pop up through the book too but even though it was the image of Virginia and Leonard Woolf hoarding cyanide pills to use in an emergency that was one of the central inspiration points for the novel, Alison’s prose, whilst full of intense and wonderful imagery, is more earthy and grounded than Woolf’s. “I like writers who are a bit more in the body.”

Alison is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at Chichester University and Unexploded is her third novel.

Most chilling and evocative are the images of Brighton: the pier closed “by order of the corporation”, fishing boats vanished, derelict beach chalets removed. “Across the King’s Road, the elegant rooftops of the Grand Hotel and the Metropole had been upstaged by the guns on the new naval station”.

In the book, Brighton as a pleasure town has reached the end of pleasure and the Beaumont family are as wrecked and troubled as the seafront covered in anti-landing-craft spikes laid out along the shingle. “There is no invasion as fearful as love, no havoc like desire,” Alison writes, and the novel asks: what are our defences, both politically and personally? The answer to that question is by no means straightforward, but pondering it is to follow a melancholy waltz through this delicately balanced and elegant book.

Unexploded is published by Hamish Hamilton, hardback £16.99

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