The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman

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Reviewed by Victoria Best

It is November 1963 and Nell Benjamin is annoyed with her husband, Charlie. The previous evening, they had guests round, and the boorish drunk, Frank Tucker, made a sexist remark that she’s not about to forgive easily, and certainly not while Charlie is refusing to condemn his old friend. This is who Nell Benjamin is – a politically astute, right-thinking woman at the vanguard of her times. Nell espouses leftish politics (she and Charlie both had Communist leanings back in the 40s) and she fully supports civil rights, working as a journalist for the intellectual journal, Compass, that Charlie edits. Charlie is a Jew whose awareness of the Holocaust has made him cleave to free America, but often his principles seem soggier than Nell’s and she won’t stand to see him backslide. Once Charlie has left for work, taking their daughter to school en route, Nell regrets their argument and her refusal to let the remark go. As she glances at the television news, she sees JFK and the First Lady touch down from Air Force One in Texas and promises she’ll make it up to Charlie later. She has no idea that over the course of the day their lives will change forever.

Before we find out what happens next, Ellen Feldman makes the bold move of taking us back in time to the start of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. When they meet as college students, both attending on the GI Bill, Nell is afraid that she might be pregnant from her black boyfriend, Woody, and aware of how reluctant he is to support her. Her relief on discovering that she’s not expecting a child makes her weak with thankfulness and somehow more open to Charlie’s advances. The couple marry, find work on the magazine and then Charlie is suddenly promoted to editor, making their lives far less pecunious and bringing them into a charmed circle of writers like Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell. Their fortunes flicker during the Communist witchhunts driven by Senator McCarthy, but they survive. And then Nell finds herself on a tour of Russia with a black theatre company’s revival of Porgy & Bess. Who should be the lawyer they bring with them but Woody, Nell’s old flame. The upsetting events on the trip throw the two of them closer together, but Nell is nothing if not a woman of principle. But which principles will she chose to protect – her personal or her political ones?

By the time we reach the point where we began, the reader is aware that some of the characters in the novel cannot be as pure as they seem, but it’s not certain who will turn traitor. And when disaster happens to Nell’s marriage, we’re also pretty sure that certain secrets will have to come to light, even though we’re not sure what those secrets may be. This is a novel about the tenacity required to hang onto one’s integrity, particularly in a rapidly changing political climate, and particularly when one’s beliefs and ethics are far from mainstream. It’s very good on the way that even the most ostensibly right-minded people find themselves caught in situations of moral ambiguity.

Whilst the writing is delicious and the atmosphere beautifully redolent of the historical era, this isn’t a flawless novel. Nell is a difficult character to like with her prickly principles and aura of self-righteousness (though it takes a few blows across the course of the narrative). And Ellen Feldman takes several risks with the pacing of the story, often allowing it to slow down dangerously while she takes her time over the unfolding of events. This makes for a rich and intriguing book that is never compromised on its intellectual ambition – this is very much a story that makes you think and question. But you have to stick with it here and there; it won’t simply carry you along on the crest of an action-packed wave. It’s also quite reminiscent of another couple of spy-era novels that have been published of late – Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth and Jennie Rooney’s Red Joan. But if you liked those books, the chances are good that you’ll enjoy this one.

In the end, what I liked about it most was its brilliant enquiry into the nature of betrayal. The story demands that we consider what constitutes a serious betrayal and asks whether some lapses are more forgiveable than others. When the personal is political, is it inevitable that one should be put in service of the other? And in troubled political times, how can we tell our friends from our enemies, when behaviour and beliefs can so easily end up at odds? A clever portrait of a complicated marriage in which both partners try to do the right thing and fail, this is a novel that you won’t forget in a hurry.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Ellen Feldman, The Unwitting (Picador, 2014),  256 pages.

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