Exposure by Helen Dunmore: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage

Cover imageA new Helen Dunmore’s always a treat for me. Regular visitors may have noticed that she’s the writer I cite when complaining about the ratio of acclaim given to male and female writers.  Exposure has already garnered much in the way of review coverage but when it comes to ranking writers in the contemporary literary canon McEwan, Barnes, Rushdie etc. etc. always seem to win out over the likes of the extremely talented Dunmore. Enough of that for now – no doubt it’s a theme that will be revisited. Like Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, Dunmore’s new novel is set during the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia but whereas events in Kay’s book take place in 1981, Exposure opens in 1960

Three people listen to a train whistle blow: Lily is in the garden, a little unnerved by the noise before realising there’s nothing to worry about; Gus hears it, too, but is unmoved, knowing ‘exactly which train he will catch, if he ever needs to disappear’; ten year-old Paul adores trains and wonders if his father will take him to King’s Cross again soon. Lily was once Lili, a German-Jewish refugee, now married to Simon, son of the landed gentry with whom he’s disassociated himself. He’s almost as obsessed with trains as his son, dashing home from his work at the Admiralty to play with Paul, Sally and five-year-old Bridget. Gus also works for the Admiralty. Educated, well-travelled, sophisticated, louche – he’s a little past his sell-by date and suspected of dallying with Moscow. Trips to the Nightshade to pick up boys are no longer passing without comment. Gus is thick with the high-ranking Julian Clowde and has taken the liberty of bringing a top-secret file home. Up in his attic hidey-hole all seems secure until he takes a drunken tumble, lands himself in hospital and calls upon his old friend Simon to remove the file. For the sake of loyalty and love, Simon agrees but decides not to return it that night as Gus has urgently instructed. Before long those in the Admiralty who have Gus in their sights have sprung into action.

You could describe Exposure as a thriller – not the first Dunmore has written; the wonderfully taut, sensual Talking to the Dead is one of my favourites of hers – but it’s very much more than that. A triumph of storytelling, Exposure is a subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. The bond that binds Simon to Gus despite long since turning his back on their past relationship, the fierce love Lily has for their children and the almost painfully adult protectiveness they grow to have for her are all beautifully drawn. Dunmore’s writing is always striking, each word carefully chosen. ‘Moscow? It’s like Birmingham, my dears, but without the bright lights’ perfectly conveys Gus’s self-regarding showy wit. Lily’s solicitor is ‘the kind of man who would always know, without even having to think about it, that Lily was a Jew’ summons up 1960s anti-Semitism vividly while Julian contemptuously dismisses her as ‘Exactly the kind of woman to make trouble. Jewish, of course’. It’s an engrossing story well spun, replete with the kind of period detail that has you smelling the coal fires Lily kindles in the chilly Kent cottage the family finds itself in. Gripping storytelling, subtle characterisation and beautifully crafted prose: another Dunmore triumph then

13 thoughts on “Exposure by Helen Dunmore: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage”

  1. I loved this book too ….although I think Gus’s line is cribbed from something Guy Butgess said , isn’t it . Fantastic sense of the period …..I love her writing and can’t help thinking she is a little underrated such a versatile writer .

    1. You may well be right about the Burgess quote. I love it, though. It’s about time she was given the credit due to her – not just an accomplished novelist but a brilliant poet and children’s book writer, too.

    1. What a lovely comment and welcome to my little bit of the blogosphere! Lots of treats in store from Dunmore. She’s got quite a few excellent novels under her belt and is an an award-winning poet, too.

  2. I still haven’t read Dunmore, but the positive reviews of this one have been coming thick and fast. It does sound very appealing…and I do find this era hard to resist!

  3. I have yet to read a book by Dunmore, although she’s been on my radar for a while now. This one sounds so good, but I’m guessing that several of her books are just as good, so I might start with one that’s already available at my library. Do you have any favourites? How does this one compare to her others?

    1. I’d recommend Talking to the Dead or The Siege – both very different, both excellent and both as good as Exposure. Just one to avoid and that’s Counting the Stars. I’d love to hear what you think of her work, Naomi.

  4. Pingback: Books of the Year 2016: Part One | A Life In Books

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