Since a couple of the books on the longlist were only published a week or so ago, I have failed to finish reading the whole list before the shortlist was published. One of the two, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was so likely to be included in the shortlist that I left it until last to read, while I read Alison MacLeod’s new novel Unexploded.
It is pretty clear from the book jacket that this will be a story about World War II. Indeed it is. Although there is a great deal more unexploded emotion, than unexploded bombs. It is a very subtle look at the tensions of living in fear of invasion; in finding out in extremis what your husband is prepared to do in the event of the Germans actually arriving on the beaches of Brighton. So housewife, Evelyn and her conventional Bank Manager husband Geoffrey, find themselves at odds over the issue, even though in a very real sense, Geoffrey has done everything he can possibly do to provide for, and protect, her and their son, Philip.
The trouble is, the invasion doesn’t come. So all the tension and anxiety remains, the threat is unexploded so to speak. Meanwhile, as a local and eminent citizen, Geoffrey is appointed Superintendent of the local internment camp up on the Brighton Race Course, where among others resides his tailor, a Jew of foreign extraction and a German, one who has already fallen foul of his own country and been labelled a ‘degenerate’ and is interned: a Jew, a German and degenerate. The necessary conditions for everyone to go off the rails are all there waiting for the crash…
This novel draws together so many elements of wartime Britain, fusing the Sachenhausen forged bank-notes; the labour camps; George Bell, Bishop of Chichester; even Dr Metzger and the experiments on children into a seamless if shocking account of what it was like for the people who live through it. Even Virginia Woolf enters the story, her books The Waves and The Years both figure and prefigure some of the events in the novel, as indeed does the story of David and Bathsheba, cruelly twisted. The privations and also the pleasures: some natural, some illicit are all here.
This is a wonderful book and had stiff competition from a very talented longlist. For once there has hardly been for me a single dud, apart from The Kills. It has been a rare enough privilege to read such a good longlist. So all thanks and congratulations to the judges.
Now to the shortlist. What a difficult choice. The luminous 800 page thriller The Luminaries, set in the goldfields of New Zealand, against the jewel-like brevity of The Testament of Mary; the last (allegedly) novel by Jim Crace against the first novel by NoViolet Bulawayo. The Japanese-American Zen Buddhist priest or the American Bengali. An unenviable task, what a pity they cannot all win. Reading these books has been such a pleasure.