Exposure by Helen Dunmore

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’m sure I’ve read Helen Dunmore before, but it must have been a long time ago as a scan of her previous titles fails to ring any bells. I know she’s much admired, so this sounded like a good place to acquaint, or maybe reacquaint, myself with her. I was drawn to this novel because it sounded like a perfect follow on to Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, which I reviewed in Shiny 8. Both are about spies, and both set in the Cold War era, though Dunmore’s, taking place in 1960, pre-dates Kay’s by 20 years. If that wasn’t enough, the blurb really caught my attention:

The Cold War is at its height, and a spy may be a friend or neighbour, colleague or lover.
At the end of a suburban garden, in the pouring rain, a woman buries a briefcase deep in the earth.
She believes that she is protecting her family.
What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.

Doesn’t that make you long to read it? It did me. And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The woman is Lily Callington, who lives with her husband Simon and their three children in Muswell Hill, London. She lives a very ordinary life, as a wife, mother and teacher, but her origins are not so ordinary – she arrived in England with her mother at the age of four, fleeing Nazi Germany. Her English is perfect – perhaps occasionally a little too perfect – and she remembers neither the German language nor anything about her early years. But it becomes clear, as the events of the novel take hold, that something of the terror of that flight and what precipitated it remain deeply buried in her mind and emotions. Perhaps this is partly what makes her so passionately protective of her husband and her children.

Lily’s husband Simon works at the Admiralty. This sounds conventional enough, but his department is concerned with spying on Russia. He’s a quiet, gentle man, happy with his wife and children. However, Simon has a secret. In his university days, he had a passionate affair with Giles Holloway, who got him his job and is now his superior at work. But Giles is a traitor, and fears he will have to escape to Russia before too long. He dreads the grey, dreary life he will have to lead over there, but more than that, he dreads the possibility of exposure before he is ready to leave. And when this becomes a very real possibility, he calls on the wholly innocent Simon for help, something Simon feels obliged to give. The results are unthinkably terrible, and soon Simon is in prison, with no prospect of freedom ahead of him.

So, although Simon is central to the novel and events revolve around him, the main focus is divided between Lily and Giles. We see Lily’s life fall apart after Simon’s imprisonment: she loses her job and her income, has to rent out their London house, and takes the children to a remote cottage near the Kentish coast, from where she makes regular but tedious and exhausting train journeys to London to visit Simon in prison. Giles, meanwhile, has ended up in hospital following an accident, and while his damaged leg is slowly mending, receives a much more serious diagnosis. Both these characters and their lives are drawn with immense perceptiveness and subtlety. Lily’s change in circumstances looks unbelievably awful, but she deals with it all with incredible courage and resilience. She puts a brave face on things for the children, who are, however, not fooled, and in fact, forced to face uncomfortable facts, actually mature and develop in ways that would have been unthinkable in safe suburban Muswell Hill. Lily is forced, ultimately, into extreme and uncharacteristic action, but the hope for the future that results makes it all worthwhile.

As for Giles, I thought him a brilliant creation. Initially, there’s nothing to like. Overweight, over fond of alcohol, pompous, as flamboyantly camp as anyone could be in 1960, he seems like a wholly unsympathetic character, especially when he involves Simon in what proves to be a disastrous cover-up. But as his illness progresses, we get increasing insight into his past, and see how central to his thoughts and feelings was his intense love affair with Simon. For me at least he was transformed into someone very human, facing his own mortality with a moving courage.

Helen Dunmore has brilliantly evoked the minutiae of everyday life at the period, from the irritations of housework with badly functioning machines – the vacuum cleaner that spits dust, the infuriating twin tub – to the deep-seated prejudices of ordinary people, like Lily’s headmistress who has no compunction in sacking her when Simon is arrested, or Simon’s brothers who, we learn, cruelly threw her into a pond when she and Simon were first together. Indeed, there is a worrying strain of anti-Semitism running throughout the novel, something which, though deeply distressing, does contribute to Lily’s marshalling of her own inner resources in response. And, of course, it reminds us of the terror of exposure suffered by homosexuals at the period, both publicly and, in Simon’s case, on a deeply personal level.

So, though I said at the start that this is a novel about spies, it’s about as far from a James Bond-type thriller as you could possibly get. Truly, it’s a story about love, in its many guises, and what love will cause people to do. Quietly, subtly, movingly written, this stayed with me long after I’d finished reading it. Oh, and that briefcase in the blurb? You’ll have to read the novel to find out more, and you certainly should.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Helen Dunmore, Exposure (Hutchinson, 2016). 978-0091953942, 400pp., hardback.

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