You really never can guess ahead, I haven’t touched any good spy books for ages, and then three come along at once. In January I luxuriated in the tense, emotional drama of Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Heat of the Day’ (reviewed here), and the very enjoyable ‘Trouble on the Thames’ by Victor Bridges (reviewed here). Though set in the same era, these novels are strikingly different in plot, themes and tone; between the two of them, I’d have expected to cover all the espionage bases. But by now I’d caught the bug, soon I was picking up Helen Dunmore’s latest cold-war novel, reentering the literature of loyalty, love and dark, difficult decisions.
The title of this post comes from the fact that, half way through ‘Exposure’, and unable to take the tension, I compromised on how I would deal with the suspense. I wouldn’t skip to the end. That would be cheating. More pertinently, I was reading on a Kindle and it’s very hard to skip ahead subtly on such devices. Instead, I would hunt around for reviews and hope for spoilers.
I didn’t get any real spoilers, but I found something even better, Kate Clanchy’s review of ‘Exposure’ in the Guardian. She pointed out the similarities between Dunmore’s novel and E. Nesbit’s children’s classic, ‘The Railway Children.’ I love ‘The Railway Children.’ I think it’s about as perfect as a book can be. While I felt extremely foolish for not spotting the connection immediately, I also took hope. After all, Nesbit’s book has a wonderful ending so maybe I could survive the tension and finish Dunmore’s too.
The similarities don’t stem from the time period; while Nesbit’s novel was written and set over 100 years ago, ‘Exposure’ has none of the comfort of distance. Though set during the Cold War, the paranoia and issues of loyalty are utterly relevant today and are written without any cheerful nostalgia. It’s 1960s Britain but there isn’t a decadent, rebellious teenager in sight; instead we see life haunted by years of austerity and the legacy of the second world war. This sense of history gives a tonal twist on Nesbit’s story. In her world, life is essentially good until it is turned upside down. Dunmore’s novel begins with hideous childhood bullying, and that’s before we learn that Lily, the main mother in the story, was a Jewish refugee, only just getting out of Germany in time. The adults in ‘Expose’ know that life is essentially cruel, arbitrary and unforgiving. This means that when the family are touched by Cold War espionage the book offers very little in the way of hope (that’s the point at which I reached for the reviews).
About two thirds through the book, with the father in prison awaiting an unfair trial, Lily and the children leave their large London home and move down to the coast. Lily is able to find work and I was able to find more traces of ‘The Railway Children’ to support my wishes for a well-earned happy ending. In the meantime, the precision of the percentage mentioned above should not go overlooked. This is the first Dunmore novel I have read, and the precise structure is everything I would expect from such a lauded writer. The first third of the book is pre-arrest, when a phone-call from Simon’s old friend interrupts a normal family evening. The second third explores the terrifying consequences of this phone call in excruciating detail. Overlaying these clear divisions are the network of images and themes, from railway lines to pools of water, from the claustrophobic prison cell to private hospital rooms. ‘Exposure’ is a book of patterns and repetition, a feature which either gives hope for the characters, or suggests an unending cycle of suffering. Frankly, the tone depends on which section you’re reading.
Despite finally embracing the genre, I don’t know enough about spy novels to say if the themes of sexuality, maternity and integrity are original or traditional elements in Dunmore’s novel. What I do know is that she succeeds in creating a powerful and compelling story that both reflects the past and speaks to the present. A highly recommended read.
I received my copy of ‘Exposure’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.