Helen Dunmore’s 2010 novel, The Betrayal, set in Soviet Russia, ended with a heroic doctor returning to his family after years of exile in the Siberian gulag. And Dunmore’s new novel, Exposure, opens with another homeward journey. Following a brief imprisonment, a nondescript English civil servant is on his way back to his family. Simon Carrington is no hero, and his London prison is no death camp. Yet, in this superb espionage thriller, 1960s England seems as drenched with menace as 1950s Leningrad.
For terror, in Dunmore’s hands, is always intimate, insinuating. “Policemen are going through her kitchen cupboards,” Lily Carrington notes when her husband is arrested and her house searched. “Nothing can be put back in its right place now.” Moments later, an English detective addresses Lily in German, her mother tongue, and Lily, ever watchful, recognizes a bully. “She understands him. She knows his type, and he doesn’t know hers.” Secrecy is strength, Lily has learned from her childhood in Nazi Germany. But this is England — Hampstead, where Lily, now a schoolteacher, lives cozily with Simon and their three children. (Few writers evoke domestic security as vividly as Dunmore does, only, of course, to shatter it.)
The unraveling begins with an evening phone call. Giles Holloway, a colleague at the Admiralty and an old friend, calls Simon from hospital following a drunken fall at home. Giles asks Simon to retrieve a file from his flat and smuggle it back into the office. Otherwise, Giles knows, “They’ll pull out the coils of his double life — all those years, his cleverness — and by the time they’ve finished his guts will be all over the floor.” There are layers of deception here — personal and political — each one exposed with delicate, forensic skill and deadly timing. As Simon observes, “It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know,” and Dunmore at first gives teasing glimpses of her characters’ secret lives. Giles, once the dashing subversive: “a pirate then, flying his own flag under the very bows of the great ship of state.” Giles and Simon in Simon’s student bed in Cambridge: “Nothing in me that he couldn’t touch,” Simon later recalls. The icy and vindictive Julian Cloude, Giles’s recruiter and nemesis. All men from the right class, the right club where “overtures were made and accepted, and there you were, old boy, lodged in position, vouched for by men who had the ear of everyone who mattered.”
Dunmore is a wonderfully restrained writer, and in Exposure, her finest novel to date, she creates a stifling atmosphere of dread by shuttling her narrative between the sealed world of the hospital where Giles lies dying and the prison where Simon awaits trial for treason. Only Lily is free to act. Seeing “the big smooth gears of the law begin to move around Simon, meshing him in,” she realizes that her dawning knowledge of her husband’s secrets makes her both a suspect and a threat. Like many Dunmore heroines, Lily must escape with her children and survive by her wits. There is nothing melodramatic, however, about this flight. Lily and the children move to a primitive cottage on the Kent coast, where she finds a job as a housekeeper. She visits Simon in prison. She watches and waits, picturing the incriminating file she has hidden moldering away underground.
Meanwhile the Carrington children keep their own secrets and make their own emergency plans. “I hate those books where there’s a mystery but the children solve it and they all go home for tea,” young Paul observes. It is a sly allusion by an author who also writes children’s stories and who, particularly with this novel, returns her adult readers to a state of childhood entrancement. Not with sentimental scenes or tidy conclusions but with details so sharp and insights so keen that the page seems, for an instant, to flood with the scent of a summer garden or the stench of a deathbed. Giles, groggy in his hospital room, “catches a smell like wet sawdust on a butcher’s floor . . . how wounds smell when they go bad.” Simon, meeting his sleek attorney in prison, notices that “Pargeter wears an old, smooth watch which purrs through the minutes of his appointment.” Dunmore’s plot, too, is a meticulous creation, its interlocking pieces deftly placed and its final revelation as lethal as it subdued. “The girl’s bent head shines as she takes down Giles’s words in shorthand . . . his avalanche of evidence.” It is a dying man’s last act, of revenge and of love.