Monday, December 12, 2016

Review of Exposure by Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson, 2016)

Lily Callington fled with her mother to Britain from Germany in the late 1930s, leaving her father behind.  November, 1960, and she’s living in Muswell Hill, is married to Simon and has three kids.  Late one evening Simon’s boss from the Admiralty, Giles, phones from hospital and asks him to visit immediately.  It seems that Giles has taken home a top secret document and needs Simon to return it covertly.  Once in possession of the file, Simon hesitates.  Shortly after Simon is arrested and accused of spying for the Soviets.  While a small camera is found in his office at work, the crucial file is still missing.  Suddenly Lily’s world is falling apart.  Her husband is in remand, her job is under threat, her neighbours and colleagues shun her, and the kids are being bullied.  Simon seems resigned to his fate with the evidence stacked against him and Lily seems destined to repeat the flight to safety she experienced twenty years previously.  She’s a fighter though and she’s determined to try and keep her family together.

Exposure is a spy drama that focuses mostly on the fallout affecting a wife and children when a family-man is framed as a traitor.  The tale concentrates on a triangle between Lily Callington, her husband Simon, and his boss, Giles.  In an effort to save his own skin after taking a top secret file home and ending up in hospital after a fall, Giles turns to Simon, a long-time friend and colleague.  When Simon fails to take the file back he unwittingly positions himself as a fall-guy.  Dunmore uses the refrains of indecision, waiting too long, and a hope that a situation will turn out alright to chart the fallout, setting the tale in the context of Lily’s flight from Germany twenty years earlier in which her family delaying leaving Germany, with only herself and her mother reaching Britain.  The tale has a number of strengths.  The storyline is nicely plotted and paced, with the unfolding drama of the ordeal interspersed with flashbacks to key moments in Lily, Simon and Giles’ lives and the gradual revealing of secrets that may have additional repercussions.  The characterisation and character development is excellent, with each of the leads being fully dimensional, along with the children, and their interactions ring true.  In addition, Dunmore keeps the mood and tension low-key but persistent, keeping the sense of an everyday family caught out of step front and centre.  The result is an engaging, thoughtful, understated literary spy tale.

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