This is my review of Exposure by Helen Dunmore.
When ageing Guy Burgess-type lower pecking order spy Guy Holloway is hospitalised after a drunken fall, he burdens his former lover Paul Callington with the task of smuggling a Top Secret file back into his boss’s Admiralty office. Paul has created a new life for himself as devoted husband to Lily and father of three appealing young children. Yet, with his gay past and wife Lily who, when little, came to Britain as a German Jewish refugee, he is vulnerable and exposed to being framed in the sinister, suspicious Cold War world seeping up through fissures in the cosy, law-abiding England of hot Bovril and sliced spam.
As an admirer of Helen Dunmore’s writing, I came to this book with high expectations and so was disappointed by the opening chapters which switch between the three main characters with heavy use of flashbacks, providing a good deal of condensed information about them without really engaging the reader. Later, I realised that the early chapters are merely intended to set the scene for the specific crisis that is the focus of the author’s interest. When she finally “gets into her stride” with this, I was hooked.
Helen Dunmore is excellent at writing about children, and conveying a sense of life in Conservative, pre-Beeching, divided over CND, Soviet spy fearing Britain, with pupils sitting an eleven plus most were expected to fail and able-bodied widowers employing part-time housekeepers to pamper them with apple crumble and Bird’s custard. She also captures Lily’s wary sense from childhood of being an outsider, and her innate fear of being harmed which causes her to take impulsive evasive action, yet also gives her considerable resilience and resolve. Paul’s former relationship with Guy is gradually presented as one of real emotional depth and importance to them both, rather than a temporary fling, or convenient plot device.
Overall, this is an absorbing, well-written and constructed read which reaches a satisfying conclusion – neat, yet with the idea that life will never be the same again for the Callingtons.