With grateful thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.
Helen Dunmore is one of today’s writers that I know I like – and yet oddly enough I haven’t read all her books – yet. Exposure her latest novel is actually due out the week after next and was made available to many readers via Netgalley. I decided to get stuck in to Exposure fairly immediately – set in the cold war of the 1960’s, its thriller style isn’t my usual bag – but it’s unputdownably compelling. This new novel of love, family secrets and betrayal is likely to be a big hit with Dunmore’s legion of fans.
“It turns out that I knew everything. 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.”
Simon Callington is a fairly unambitious middle ranking admiralty officer. It was Giles Holloway who got Simon the job, Giles a secretive, manipulative hard drinker, who Simon knew at Cambridge. Now, Simon is content enough to remain as he is, his happiness lying in his nice home in Muswell Hill, his wife Lily and their three children.
One night as Simon is comfortably seated by his fire, he gets a panic call from Giles. Giles wants Simon to help clear up a serious mess he has made. There’s a file where it shouldn’t be – secret voices on the end of the phone, a shadowy man who lets himself into Giles’s flat. With Giles out of action, Simon is persuaded to help – against his better judgement. He soon comes to regret his decision, a quick glance at the file in question – and he knows it means trouble.
Simon has his own secrets that risk exposure, a life he lived while at Cambridge his wife knows nothing about. Lily finds the file hidden behind the children’s boots in the cloakroom, and fearing for its discovery – buries it in the garden. Simon is arrested, charged with selling secrets to the Russians, the police search the house before turning on Lily. Wanting to know – does she speak German. The police know all about Lily’s past. Born in Germany she came to England before the war in 1937 with her mother Elsa, and from the moment she set foot on English soil Lili became Lily and spoke only English.
“The house is a ship, riding the waves high above London. This is what Lily always told herself at night, when she’s afraid and the noise of the city becomes forlorn, even terrifying, as if anything might happen.
Lily no longer speaks a word of German, but she still hears the noise of thousands and thousands of throats, open, baying. It’s only the traffic, or the wind.”
Lily works part-time as a French teacher – but the headmistress is looking at her oddly now – and any day Lily knows her job will be gone. With Simon on remand – she can no longer afford to live in their home, she feels the eyes of everyone are on her, wondering, judging. Newspapermen lay siege to the house, calling their questions through the letterbox. The children are frightened. Lily and the children leave London for Kent – here close to the sea they rent a tiny cottage – and Lily takes a house keeping job to an elderly widower, while the children walk home from school and collect sea coal from the beach.
“Suddenly, she is sure beyond doubt that there is someone outside the cottage, watching it, just as there was in London. The walls seem to dissolve and leave her naked. If she looked out she would see them, standing on the lane, turned towards her window. They know she’s here.
There aren’t any neighbours. If anything happened, no one would know until morning. Maybe not even then. It’s too dark for her to look at her watch, and she daren’t switch on the light.”
Lily shows herself to be tough, resourceful; she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her children from the men who want to destroy her family.
The Helen Dunmore novels I remember best are those with a strong sense of place, Talking to the Dead, Zennor in Darkness stand out particularly. Exposure is a brilliantly plotted novel, it’s enormously compelling and I gulped it down. Dunmore builds the tension slowly, the atmosphere of fear and creeping shadows is chillingly well done. I especially loved the section set in Kent – that sense of place I loved so much in those previous novels is strong here too.
Helen Dunmore is an excellent writer, and I really must read those books I have yet to get to – I still have The Lie tbr for a start.