BOOK REVIEW: ‘Exposure’ – Washington Times
By Helen Dunmore
Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 400 pages
The female tradition of novels about war and its aftermath differs from the more familiar male tradition. Women writers don’t focus on soldiers and battlefields or spies and moles and checkpoints, but on the people left at home to deal with food shortages, and with bombs and sudden deaths. Distinguished British examples include the early novels of Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” sequence (1952-1969), and Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (1960-1965), which among much else charts the German invasion of the Balkans by the disappearance of food from the markets. These and other war and Cold War novels by women get their narrative drive from the study and the characterization of people exposed to wartime conditions that they can neither control nor combat in any useful way.
Helen Dunmore is a notable practitioner of this tradition. Her first novel, “Zennor in Darkness” (1993), describes the hostility to D.H. Lawrence during World War I when he was staying in a Cornish village and he and his German wife Frieda were suspected of spying for the enemy. “The Lie” (2014) is about an ex-soldier dealing with the effects of that war. “The Siege” (2001) focuses on one family trapped in Leningrad during the 872-day German siege that began in 1941. A later Leningrad novel, “The Betrayal” (2012), is set in the 1950s, when Russians were living in the Cold War climate of fear and threat. The author’s newly published “Exposure” is also about a society and a family still living with the repercussions of war. It is 1960, and Simon and Lily Callington are happily settled in their London house with their three children. They look like the typical post-World War II English family, slowly but steadily paying off their mortgage, using Lily’s earnings from teaching to buy furniture, and wanting nothing other than to do their jobs, then come home and enjoy their kids.
But as the novel progresses we see that they are not so typical after all. Lily began life as Lili Brandt, who was brought to England as a child to escape the German persecution of the Jews. Simon comes from a wealthy family in Norfolk, studied in Cambridge, and now works at the Admiralty — a job procured for him by an older friend Giles Holloway. When Giles falls down the stairs from his attic study and breaks his leg, he calls Simon from the hospital and asks him to retrieve a file from his flat and return it unobtrusively to the desk of their boss. Simon realizes that the file is so secret that neither Giles nor he should have seen it, and it certainly should not have been removed from the office. Instead of taking it to work next morning, he hides it in a closet at home while he considers the all-too-obvious implications of espionage and what he should do about them. Lily finds it. She also knows it should never have left the Admiralty, so she buries it near her compost heap. Giles, meanwhile, remains in the hospital.
The corollary of this simple series of events is a cascade of exposures, each one seemingly triggering another as Lily and the children are uprooted to an unlovely Kentish village. Lily sees that her life in London had more fragile foundations than she had suspected. Her life, her job, her children are more exposed than she had thought possible. As for Simon, things he had allowed to remain hidden are now revealed. “All the facts were in my head and always had been. I ignored them because it was easier. I didn’t want to make connections. I’ve begun to understand that I’ve been half asleep all my life and now I’m waking up”
These realizations have come slowly as events unfold in a predictable but terrifying way. Lily is extraordinarily competent, and entirely sympathetic character. The children are beautifully and credibly portrayed. Simon, too, for all his willing blindness, is not unappealing. These charming portrayals of the family stoke the reader’s anxiety about its fate far more powerfully than the over-elaborate plots of so many novels of Cold War espionage.
Yet careful plotting is also crucial to our sense of a trap snapping its jaws on the Callingtons. Ms. Dunmore gets the tale of the purloined file off to a brisk start, and the action unfolds apace. But against this narrative thrust she interposes flashbacks to earlier lives. This complicates the psychological and social issues by showing the characters caught in webs of personal and social history. The solutions to the Callingtons’ problems are always evident, but as in any thrilling tale of espionage, the reader is in suspense until the end. Even then, there are new exposures to be made.
This novel is satisfying, and all the more convincing because Helen Dunmore makes it so easy for her readers to see seemingly ordinary people muddling along into a chilling mess. Those familiar with her 13 previous novels will not be disappointed, and those new to her work will be happy that she has written so much.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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