And so we reach the penultimate book in my apparently neverending Booker Prize Longlist challenge of 2013. Apparently, it’s a “much anticipated” new novel, which I’m sure is the case for those of us who have read MacLeod’s previous novels and knew this one was coming out. As it is, I was blissfully unaware of either, but the subject of this novel was very much up my alley, so to speak. Set in 1940, it focuses on a maddeningly middle class family, the Beaumonts. Geoffrey and Evelyn are unhappily married and living in Brighton, which is living with the very real threat of being invaded by Hitler’s army in the early years of the Second World War. Geoffrey has been made superintendent of an “enemy alien” camp at Brighton racetrack, Evelyn wafts around desperately, feeling alienated herself. Their only child, Phillip, is obsessed with the rumours that Hitler will make the Brighton Pavilion his UK HQ and is generally either fascinated by or oblivious to the horrors of the war beginning to encroach on his family. Back at the camp, Evelyn meets Otto Gottlieb, and well, the blurb would have it that “Love collides with fear, the power of art with the forces of war, and the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.”
I think the biggest issue I had with this book is that said change takes a bastard long time to appear, and the groundwork of laying out the lives we’re going to see change takes WAY too long and is not at any point even the slightest bit interesting. The awful middle class musings of the Beaumont couple really made me yearn for someone to wander in to the novel and shoot them both dead. It’s pushing the halfway mark before Evelyn and Otto actually meet, and nearly three quarters of this tiresome novel has elapsed before anything happens between them. Which would be fine if a) the jacket copy didn’t make it seem like there was going to be FAR more to it and b) the lead up was interesting.
Macleod also darts about in time and in character POV, which for me made it a very bitty and shallow read. I wanted more of Otto’s history, and infinitely less of Evelyn’s hand wringing. I don’t know if it’s because I saw the driest World War One play just as I started reading this, or whether it’s because I don’t think any WW novel is ever going to top Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but I just didn’t take to this book one iota. I know it’s WWII and not I, but even so, the comparisons were made. Of course, it could also be that MacLeod has really gilded the lily with her prose. There’s some awful flowery overwritten guff that made me roll my eyes and dislike the Beaumonts even more. And my word does she ever foreground the fact that the Beaumonts have two cyanide pills, just in case. That comes to nothing, but every other page had me yelling “JUST TAKE THEM, WHY DON’T YOU?”
MacLeod does all her characters a huge disservice with the fate she ultimately deals them. I suppose we’re meant to find it heartbreaking and tragic and real. I just found it incredibly annoying and deeply unsatisfying. If the gorgeous cover and good jacked copy make you think about reading this book, I have one thing to say to you: Don’t.