HELEN DUNMORE’s latest novel, Exposure, her 14th of a quietly stellar career, opens in London on a cold late afternoon in November 1960 to the whistle of a passing train.
With the wounds of war, the bombings, rationing, and sense of dread still fresh in the memory, and the threat of nuclear disaster feeding Cold War paranoia to near frenzy, this is a city caught between faces, and a perfect playground for the winkandelbow language of espionage.
Simon and Lily Callington are an outwardly normal, working class couple, the parents of three young children, a boy and two girls, mortgaged to the hilt in Muswell Hill and striving for more solid status in life, but existing very much in denial of the pasts that still hang like shackles around them.
Lily’s history is a trauma; having fled Berlin with her mother just before the war, when things had begun to turn bad for the Jews, she now speaks in an almost perfect accentless English and works part-time as a language teacher, but has never forgotten the impoverished years of her escape, or the fact that she remains an outsider in a place that has fought hard to preserve its insularity.
Simon, on the other hand, is a dreamy type, who “will never climb past the middle of any ladder, let alone to the top”, and who is content to hold down a dull but steady civil service desk job with the Admiralty and to share an enthusiasm for railways with his son, Paul.
But as placid as his surface seems, he carries with him a darkness of his own: In his youth, while indulging his mediocrity at Cambridge University, he’d fallen into a highly illicit love affair with an older man, Giles Holloway.
That’s long since finished, though the attachment has endured.
Giles also works for the Admiralty, and in fact had pulled certain strings in order to get Simon a job.
It is the actions of Giles that infuse the novel with its initial propelling tension, and drag its core cast into a vortex of virtual chaos.
Having stolen a top secret file from work, and perusing it in his apartment’s ingeniously concealed upstairs study, the wine and whiskey he has consumed contributes to a bad fall.
Hospitalised and operated on for a smashed leg and a serious concussion, his only thought is to cover the tracks of his treachery, and so he turns to Simon, the one person he can trust to do the right thing, with a request that the file be collected from his flat and returned before its absence is discovered.
Simon agrees, finds the file, and conceals it in an old briefcase. Back at home, though, he finds that the briefcase also conceals a cartridge of film. He reads the file, and understands.
The revelation that his friend is a double agent, “a fat, queer traitor, a drunkard and a bungler... (who) has been batting for the other side in more ways than one”, comes as a great shock.
And yet Simon knows he should have seen the signs. Worse, he begins to realise that he is now also implicated.
Unfortunately, while the likes of Giles and his ilk are used to walking dangerous lines, the young family man proves ill-equipped for such scheming.
The inevitable soon happens: He is caught and arrested, charged with espionage, and imprisoned.
And it is at this point, as the focus shifts more in the direction of Lily, that the novel truly comes into its own.
For the greater part of three decades now, Helen Dunmore has ranked as one of the most highly regarded British writers of her generation. But while consistently acclaimed as a short story writer, a poet of considerable renown, and the author of some 20 books for children and teens, it is with her novels that the greater weight of her reputation lies.
Her adult fiction debut, Zennor in Darkness, won the prestigious McKitterick Prize in 1994, and two years later she was awarded the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction for her third novel, A Spell of Winter. Since
then, she has continued to prove herself as a prolific and versatile talent, a writer of clear, elegant, and beautifully crafted prose, wonderfully capable of balancing the popular with the so-called literary and with a rare and often quite stunning feel for atmosphere, particularly in an historical context.
Lily, the real heroine of Exposure, is a marvellously convoluted character.
Her early life traumas have tuned her instincts for the signs of danger, both to herself and her family, and after Simon’s incarceration she is left to hold everything together, in the face of overwhelming pressure.
It is difficult not to feel paranoid when friends and inlaws turn against her, and every perceived misstep or character slight, no matter how illogical, is used — if not in a legal sense then certainly by the court of public opinion — to bring her down.
In recent weeks she’d attended a campaign for nuclear disarmament rally; and hadn’t she been born Lili Brandt in Berlin, which makes her German and, Jewish or not, by some ridiculous association a Nazi?
Brave in the face of Scotland Yard interrogation, and in having to deal with people like Simon’s boss at the Admiralty, the deeply unpleasant Julian Clowde, it is nevertheless difficult not to wonder if the unusual hissing in the phone line has always been there, or to know quite how to protect her children from the harassments of the scandal-page journalists and the whispering school yard.
Through it all, she clings to the fact of her husband’s innocence, not realising, or not admitting to herself, that he might not be innocent of everything.
And while all of this is playing out, Giles, who she’d instinctively disliked from their very first encounter, remains hospitalised and slowly deteriorating, and continues to hold all the cards.
The right word from him can clear the accused; the wrong one will tear apart and bury an entire family.
From the first sentence, the author is in total control of her story, handling the various threads with admirable dexterity and finally weaving everything wonderfully together.
But Dunmore’s London spy ring is more akin to the down-at-heel worlds of John le Carre and Graham Greene than to the glamour and brutality portrayed by Ian Fleming.
With a poet’s intensity for minutia and symbolism and an always hungry precision for the right word, she creates a real and thoroughly vivid world, a living place, grim and claustrophobic, full in small ways of menace.
As will be expected with a spy novel, this is a story about secrets, though of the personal variety much more so than of the official type.
While espionage inevitably drives the beautifully and meticulously constructed plot, it does so as a slow burn, without the swoon of overwhelming cloak-and-dagger complexity.
In fact, what makes Exposure work, what makes it truly shine, are the portrayals of ordinary people, and the way in which they are defined not only by the darkest places in their hearts but also by their apparent willingness, when interacting with others, loved ones and enemies alike, to ignore certain unpalatable truths in an effort to preserve the absurdly delicate balance of the status quo.