I owe Helen Dunmore an apology. She’s been a writer I’ve been aware of for years but though I knew she had a strong following, it wasn’t until last year that I got around to reading her myself. My mistake was to make The Greatcoat my first experience. In my review I described this as a novel in which Dunmore did a superb job of creating the atmosphere of post World War 2 Britain but I found the plot implausible. What I didn’t realise was this was not her usual genre. How fortunate then that the publication this year of her new novel has given me a chance to see where I went wrong.
Exposure is set a few years after The Greatcoat but the view of England it conveys is of a country still suffering from the deprivations of the war years. We’re in 1960. Rationing has been lifted. London is no longer blighted by yellow smog thanks to the Clean Air Act. But the country is still in a make do and mend mentality and just as suspicious of ‘foreigners’. For the inhabitants of this small island, suspicions about ‘foreigners’ morph into anxieties that there may be spies lurking in their midst. This is the time of the Cold War and tension between the West and the Eastern Bloc.
Dunmore brings domestic and political concerns together through a plot in which the life of a seemingly ordinary middle class family living in a very ordinary terraced house in London is thrown into turmoil when the father is arrested. Simon Callington is an insignificant figure. Every day he dutifully heads off to his civil service job at The Admiralty, returning home to listen to a play on the radio or spend time with his railway-mad son. He becomes an innocent bystander in a plot to cover up a spy ring when all he did was to help out an old friend (who turns out to be the real spy).Yet he is the one in jail awaiting trial. Meanwhile his wife Lily gives up her teaching job and escapes public attention and humiliation by spiriting the children far away to a small village on the English coast.
For both Lily and Simon, the crisis is a time when both fear the secrets of their past lives may be uncovered. Lily was once Lili Brandt, a Jew taken to London as a small child to escape the fate dealt to so many of her family in Germany. In London she worked carefully to eradicate all traces of her accent and build a new life. But the investigation into Simon’s actions threaten to expose her origins to people who equate all Germans with Nazis.
This character and the atmosphere Dunmore creates through small details of domestic life made this a very satisfying book to read. If this is an example of what she can do, I’ll be making an appointment with her back catalogue soon I suspect.
Thanks to the publishers Random House for providing a copy via NetGalley.