The Arts

Life in War-Torn Brighton

Sometimes a book appears which is not only a compelling read but you are captivated by the characters and their stories and you say, “I could not put it down”. For me, this was ‘Unexploded’ by Alison Macleod. I did not know other books by this author, I did not even know this author, but now I am excited when I hear her name and am filled with delight at the opportunity to read more of her exquisite studies of life. Ms Macleod grew up in Canada but has lived in England since 1987.

‘Unexploded’ with its meticulous research and pounding detail, plunges us into the panic and paranoia of war, WWII in particular, but, in fact, embodies the horror of all wars. It is of especial interest to us who live here because it is set in wartime Brighton. The description of the bombing of Brighton Odeon on 14 September 1940 comes directly from the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex and Ms Macleod acknowledges a book published by Queen’s Spark Books, ‘Brighton Behind the Front: Photographs and Memories of the Second World War’.

The story fuses international, national and family politics in a powerful study of hypocrisy, oppression, cultural misunderstanding, a passionate desire between a man and a woman from opposing sides. Love and prejudice, rather than love and marriage, although she is married to another. It is when Evvie sees her lover’s painting, a triptych, in the chapel, the story of Bathsheba, that she re-examines the recent events in her life and in faultless composition, the writer gathers us into her contemplation.

Time churned. How alive she’d felt in his arms that night, so alive there was no knowing it for the joy that it was.

She turned and walked to the rear of the chapel. She needed to hold the whole of his composition in her mind’s eye, as he must have done that morning before leaving. His vision shuddered to life on the walls. The colours pulsed. The razor wire [of the camp] glinted. And she saw. The war he’d evoked wasn’t this war, their war, it was only war; the war that never ended but only began somewhere new time and again.

Yet the fresco was luminous. Here was every brute evil and loss, but above it, through it, rolled the light off the Channel and its vast reprieve.

She walked to the front again, slipping past the chapel’s small bare altar, and raised her hand to the wall to feel him in his work; in the brushstrokes of the hillside where he’d handled the pigment more freely. If only she could conjure the flat of his palm against hers – but again, nothing. Something painful welled in her chest and her heart laboured beneath her ribs, while, unknown, within, at the end of a fine fuse of flesh and blood, life pulsed.

Sylvia Alexander-Vine

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