by Helen Dunmore
Exposure by Helen Dunmore is ostensibly a spy story, set at the height of the Cold War and the scandals of the notorious spies, Burgess and Maclean and the like. The atmosphere of this post war period of secrets and the race for nuclear supremacy is described with empathy and just the right level of menace.
Lily, a German Jew, escaped from Germany with her mother as a child. She keeps reminding herself, and us that, ‘This is England. Innocent people are not taken away in the night here’. But her husband, Simon has non-the-less been arrested and imprisoned as a spy!
Simon is content with his low level job at the Admiralty, a wife who suits him perfectly and their three children. The youngest son of a wealthy family, bullied in childhood by his two older brothers he is not driven by ambition or greed. He just wants a quiet life. But he does have secrets!
He is not a spy, but people he knows are and they seem to be willing to sacrifice him, as a scapegoat for their own activities, without compunction.
The idea that life can turn on an instant and once set in motion a roller-coaster of events can carry the victim along helplessly through no direct fault of their own, is evoked with flawless subtlety and is reminiscent of an Ian McEwan plot.
Simon is asked to retrieve a document for an old friend who has had an accident and been taken to hospital. All he has to do is return the file to the Admiralty the next day. But when he sees what it is he realises that something sinister is going on. Conflicting loyalties, fear of being drawn into the aftermath and an awakening awareness of his own naivety mean that he is wrong footed from the start. He is angry at himself for his blinkered refusal to see the significance of clues that had been there all along. Now it is too late and he is trapped.
I found the story engaging from the start and the characters are well drawn, empathetic and, in the case of the spies all too believable.
The effect of events on Simon and Lily’s three children is an echo, a poignant reminder of how very deeply the two parents themselves have been shaped by their childhood experiences and fears, and ultimately how that is true of us all. And yet, as we so often do, the parents seek to protect their children by pretending all will be well. Only Bridget, too young to understand , is fooled.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel which is well written and weaves the story cleverly between several viewpoints creating enough tension and drama to keep you turning the pages.