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Novel builds slowly before bomb goes off

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This slow-building literary novel, set in Brighton, England, at the beginning of the Second World War, is the subtly drawn story of a bourgeois couple, their son and their crumbling marriage.

British author Alison MacLeod, who spent her youth in Canada, made the Booker Prize long list for this, her third novel.

Her protagonists, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont, had never questioned the solidity of their relationship until the threat of a German invasion permeated their beachside town. As bomber planes fly overhead, aiming for nearby London, Brighton residents try to go about their normal lives, obeying the patriotic slogans: "Either you sacrifice your selfishness for the nation -- or you sacrifice the nation to your selfishness."

But then Geoffrey, dependable and fair-minded, is revealed to be insecure and anti-Semitic, not to mention impotent and philandering at the same time. His role as superintendent of the town's labour camp "inspired in him a certain recklessness, a new and unexpected talent for the unpredictable," and he gets caught up in the heady turbulence of an affair with a prostitute he suspects is Jewish.

Evelyn, meanwhile, begins to shed her upstanding reputation as a stoic English wife. She steals away to public lectures by Virginia Woolf and admires clandestine artwork created by one of her husband's labour-camp detainees, Otto.

She is attracted to Otto's drastically different world view. A Jewish-German "degenerate" (as stamped on his passport), he has been hewn from rougher stuff than her own old-money, finishing-school upbringing afforded her.

Meanwhile, the Beaumonts' eight-year-old son, Philip, is a fearful and precocious boy who gets himself into one dangerous situation after another, usually at his friend's goading. Suspense is at its highest in many of the scenes involving Philip, as he seems likely to be the cause of the family's ultimate and inevitable undoing.

But the road to their demise is a long one, with many scenic detours along the way. MacLeod eases herself and her readers into the story gradually. MacLeod's prose is as lovely as the moths she describes fluttering over the "small, delicate triumphs" of night flowers.

MacLeod even captures beauty in the majesty and power of two simple green pills: cyanide, "a foul treasure," that hangs ominously over the Beaumonts' heads like a time bomb that has yet to explode.

Readers receive a glimmer of explanation for the novel's title within the first pages. The tension is already palpable by the middle of Chapter 1, and it doesn't let go of its suffocating grip until the explosive climax.

MacLeod's descriptions of destruction -- "a morbid, confused carnival" -- are riveting, not overdone. Her exploration of a home blown to smithereens is vivid but cool. It's this detachment that somehow makes the devastation all the more frightening.

MacLeod deftly returns to the desolation of the Beaumonts' unhappy marriage to show that desperation and despair are her domains and, whether in wartime Brighton or behind the closed doors of an upscale English family's home, she's in charge.

 

Jennifer Ryan is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A1

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