Helen Dunmore

Published by Hutchinson UK/Atlantic Monthly US

400pp, hardcover, £16.99/$25.00

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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It’s a familiar scenario: spies within the British defence establishment during the dreary post-war years; homosexuals at Cambridge; stodgy menus at gentlemen’s clubs; creepy men, in hats, lighting cigarettes under old-fashioned street lamps; secret cameras and borrowed files. But to this well-worn set-up, Dunmore brings a fresh perspective and unusual psychology. The unwitting couple suddenly enmeshed in a Russian espionage offensive in her new novel are Simon and Lily Callington. Simon is an establishment figure, but Lily, born Lili, is the daughter of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Berlin just ahead of World War II. That childhood history of exclusion, fear, desperation and enforced practicality lends Lili an edge when her world collapses, threatening Simon, her children, her finances and her entire sense of security.

The plot hinges on a macguffin of a missing file, left in jeopardy when Giles Holloway, a drunken old double agent within the British Admiralty, falls down a staircase in his flat and is unable to return the borrowed papers to their proper home. Simon, a junior civil servant recruited by Giles, is the unlucky victim of an ill-thought-out plan to rescue the top-secret documents. But the dangers multiply instead of dwindling, and Lily’s discovery of the file drives matters into uncharted territory.

Dunmore does an enjoyable job of recreating the texture of the era, complete with pinnies, warm Ribena, old-fashioned nursing, coal scuttles and travel alarm clocks. These touches, and a focus on the smells and sounds of train journeys, prison yards and school playgrounds, are richly evocative.

Less effective is the plot structure itself, a simple thing with an unlikely and disappointing conclusion. Yet Dunmore’s sensitivity to inner landscape, to the minutiae of thought and feeling, and especially to the female version of this particular scenario redeem the novel. Dreamy and haunted by childhood terror, Exposure exchanges sensitivity for Le Carre-esque spycraft. For that alone, it makes for a refreshing take on a creaky genre.

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