Tuesday, February 13, 2018

the last book I read

Exposure by Helen Dunmore.

Simon and Lily Callington have a nice enough life - a house in Muswell Hill, three children aged between five and eleven, decent jobs; she works part-time as a teacher, he has a mid-ranking job at the Admiralty. They're not rich but they get by OK.

Simon is fairly unambitious and has no aspirations to ascend into the higher echelons of the organisation where the serious covert intelligence work (or, if you will, spying) takes place, but he does associate professionally with those who do, most notably Giles Holloway, the man who helped Simon get the job in the first place. No doubt Giles had been impressed at Simon's ability to keep a secret, since the two of them had previously been lovers, something even Lily doesn't know about. Since we're in 1960, this sort of thing becoming public knowledge would be a pretty big (and career-ending, and prosecution-inviting) deal.

Giles is a valuable asset, and speaks fluent Russian, which is handy, but he's also a little bit of a loose cannon and quite partial to The Drink. One night these things come together with unforeseen consequences: he's taken home some Tip Top Super Secret documents which absolutely shouldn't have left the office, and while perusing them with a few tumblers of whisky takes a tumble down the stairs from his study and shatters his lower leg. In desperation he phones up Simon from the hospital and persuades him to pop round and collect the incriminating briefcase and sneak it back onto his desk at the office somehow.

Simon manages to accomplish the collection bit, but quickly forms the opinion that getting the briefcase back into the office without being caught red-handed with a load of documents he has no business seeing will be almost impossible. So he dithers a bit and hides the case in the wardrobe. Fortunately Lily is made of more pragmatic and decisive stuff, partly as a result of having been born in Germany and escaping with her mother to England just prior to World War II. So she grabs a spade, pops out to the back garden under cover of darkness and buries the briefcase in a secluded thicket. And just in the nick of time, because some slightly sinister men from some shady government department have come to the front door and would like to have words. And in Simon's case those words are "you're fuckin' nicked, sunshine".

So Simon is in prison, and obviously not bringing in any income, so Lily has to rent out the house to an American family and rent a cottage in a little village on the end of a branch line on the Kent coast. The children start attending the local school and Lily does some housekeeping work for a rich local widower. Meanwhile things are at something of an impasse: the document can't be found, so Simon can't be linked to it directly, although someone has planted a camera in his desk at the office. It can't have been Giles, as Giles is still in hospital and, having survived a brush with gangrene, now discovers that he has galloping lung cancer and hasn't long to live.

It's all very untidy, and Giles' superior, the charming, silver-haired, urbane but slightly sinister Julian Clowde, is determined to tie it all up so that he, in particular, can't be incriminated. Having failed to "get at" Giles in hospital thanks to the intervention of a stereotypically formidable matron, he takes the train to Lily's village to see if he can, hem hem, "persuade" her to be a little more helpful. He has, however, made two crucial miscalculations: firstly, Lily's childhood experiences have left her with a steely determination, and secondly when you threaten a woman's children you enter a WORLD OF SHIT.

Like Restless and Sweet Tooth this comes with some of the trappings of a Cold War spy thriller without actually being one (of the three, Restless probably comes closest). It's very good on the details of post-war Britain: the stifling repressiveness of the class system, the bland farty cabbageyness of the food, the residual suspicion of foreigners, and very good on the details of what it's actually about, which is the fierce irrationality of love (especially for one's own children), the fragility of what seem like firm ideas like "home", the difficulty of really knowing other people, even those one lives with. The plot, such as it is, is all tied up rather neatly at the end, and the climactic episode with Julian Clowde menacing Lily on the beach is a bit of an incongruous swerve into action thriller territory given the fairly glacial pace of what's gone before. It's also worth observing, as this Guardian review does, that the book essentially re-enacts the plot of The Railway Children.

Lily, who's really the principal protagonist here, is a very engaging and intriguing central character, and you certainly want to keep reading to see what happens next, even if, when you get to the end, you find, on reflection, that not much really has. Exposure probably isn't quite as good as the other two Dunmore novels I've read, Your Blue-Eyed Boy and Talking To The Dead, but it's still pretty good. I should add that I acquired it before Dunmore's death in June 2017, and that wasn't a conscious factor in my decision to read it now, it was just the next cab off the rank.

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