Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Cold War espionage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

exposureWhen fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.

The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.

Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.

The real Cambridge spy ring…

Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.

Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.

The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.

And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 books 2016

This is Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer.

58 thoughts on “Exposure by Helen Dunmore

  1. Ooo…I’m listening to So Close! So beautiful…. Sorry! Where was I?

    Oh yes. I think I’d like to be a part of an epic spy ring. Imagine. You can wear suits and funny looking hats. And carry a .38. And maybe even have a sword cane!

    The fellow in the middle of the real spy ring was the bad one, I think.

    • Big, soppy romantic!! You can’t possibly deny it!

      Well, that all sounds fine, but I think you’ll find that all British spies carry umbrellas with poisoned tips and concealed weapons! Perhaps that’s why you were offered one – maybe they were really trying to get you onto the team! And you rejected it! *shakes heads* Still, now that you’re a communist, they’ll probably ask you again…

      I think they all look horrible – not a cute one amongst them! Clearly not being cute should be viewed with great suspicion… *checks mirror and sighs with relief*

  2. Oh, this does sound like a terrific read, FictionFan! I must say I really love it that there are some layered and interesting characters. So often, spy thrillers (or, rather, books with that element in them) omit that important aspect, and leave me cold. This one sounds different. Add in an accurate look at the time and people place, and you’ve got me intrigued!

    • I’m exactly the same with spy thrillers – they tend to be all plot and no characterisation. But this one’s the opposite really – it’s all about the characters and the setting and, thought the plot is solid and interesting, it’s not all drama and action. Really an excellent book.

    • It was your review that first interested me in this one, so thank you! I’ve never read any of her books before, but I can see me working happily thorugh her back catalogue after this – I thought everything about it was excellent – sense of place, characterisation, writing… 😀

    • I haven’t read any of her stuff before either, but I’ll be backtracking now! I do think you’d enjoy this one, Margaret – a great authentic feeling setting, a good strong story and brilliant characterisation. I hope you love it as much as I did!

  3. Your review makes this one sound most intriguing, FF. I very well might have to give it a go myself. Drat, now my TBR appears to be putting on a bit of weight!

    • Haha! Sorry about that! But this one really is excellent, so worthy of a place on your TBR. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

    • D’you know, in the end I didn’t even put this one into my ‘thriller’ category – I decided it fitted better in “literary fiction”. Although it has thriller elements, it’s very low-key in comparison to most spy novels and the emphasis is firmly on the characterisation. I do think you’d enjoy it…

    • This is the first of her books that I’ve read, but I’ll certainly be backtracking to her other stuff! Ha! Yes the blogosphere is fatal to TBR lists! 😉

  4. Oooh… you make this sound so good. One of the best of the year so far is high praise. We have a couple of her books at the library, but not this one. I think I’ll have to make a suggestion for purchase… (when the library opens up again, that is)

    • I couldn’t find anything to criticise in this one, which is highly unusual for me! I haven’t read any of her other books, but I certainly will. If you do persuade your library, I hope you’ll enjoy it too – I think you will, it seems like it’s probably your kind of book… 😀

  5. I don’t usually go for Cold War literature, but Dunmore’s writing is so, so good. She is so skilled at atmosphere and characterisation. I’ve just finished A Spell of Winter and loved it.

    • She’s another of these authors I just seem to have missed! However I’ll be putting that right now. Yes, I thought her characterisation was great and the setting felt completely authentic – really it’s rare for me to find a book I can’t criticise in some way, but this was one of the honoured few! A Spell of Winter looks intriguing… perhaps it should be next up…

  6. Brilliant review. I came away really wanting to read this. I’ve never read Dunmore before. I have not really ever read much spy literature before either, but I’m feeling like I may be ready to head in the direction soon.

    • Thank you! 😀 This was my fist Dunmore, and I’m not a huge fan of spy novels in general – most of them seem to rely on complicated plotting rather than great characterisation. But when they’re done well, like this one, they can combine both, and then they can be fascinating. This is definitely one to add to your TBR… (576! 😉 )

  7. I’ve only read one Helen Dunmore novel (The Lie) and wasn’t all that impressed by it, but I have this one waiting to be read and am looking forward to giving her another chance. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope it will turn out to be one of my best of the year too!

    • Sometimes it’s the subject matter that’s the decider – the blurb of The Lie doesn’t appeal to me quite as much as this one. But I loved her writing so much, I suspect I’ll gradually work my way through all her books. I do hope you enjoy this one as much as I did! 😀

    • Noooooo!!! This is the one you should be making a definite!!!

      Don’t say that – I’ve just been reading a bio of Douglas MacArthur and incidentally been spotting so many similarities between the middle of the last century and what’s going on now. I’m in training for the first mission to Mars…

    • Yes!! He could have made a great movie out of this! Though I suspect he’d have ramped up the tension at the end… I love Hitchcock too, really throughout his career. And although I admire his direction and all that stuff, it’s mainly because he always picked great stories…

  8. I’ve only recently read The Railway Children and like the idea of the grown ups’ version of events, will do my best to try and find this. I wish you would read more books that don’t appeal to me though.

    • Haha! Sorry about that! But looking ahead, I’ll probably only be tempting you once or twice in the next couple of weeks. 😉

      This one is excellent though, and I would think would suit your tastes. If you do go for it, I hope you enjoy it…

      • Oh dear, I’ve just realised I read Ice Cream by this author and didn’t like her short stories. The cover was sooo enticing though, lovely pastel-coloured scoops of ice-cream…
        My library has Exposure, so I’ll give it a whirl.

        • Oh, that’s a shame. Short stories are tricky – some authors seem to be great at them and others… well, you wonder why they do it. I do hope you enjoy Exposure… *crosses fingers nervously*

  9. Harrah! Hurrah! (My predictive insisted on Harrah rather than hurrah and I think it’s rather appealing.) I’m so pleased you enjoyed it as much as I did. Dunmore is very fine indeed and I think this one is particularly so, with so many layers to it. As you say, a superb evocation of time , and personal history and psychology underpin the page turning plot.

    I’m currently, thanks to Kaggsy, in the middle of a very different but also very good espionage, Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights. I think probably if I HAD to plump for a genre, spy fiction is probably the closest to floating my boat (equipped with hidden cameras, microphones and men carrying copies of the Financial Times with the third button of their waistcoats undone, no doubt)

    • I wouldn’t necessarily seek out spy novels, because so often they’re all plot and no character, or incredibly sexist to the point of misogyny. But when you find one like this, where the characterisation is as important as the story and where the setting feels completely authentic, then they do have a certain je ne sais quoi. I shall look out for your review of Kolymsky Heights then, and see if you can tempt me…

    • I seem to be back in a run of tediously overlong, plotless lit-fic again at the moment, so this one was a more than welcome break. And it will remind you of London…

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