I am a fan of Helen Dunmore. I’ll say that first. Her novel The Siege is one of my faves. It’s also one of those novels that broke my actual heart. So, I was obviously super excited to read her latest book, Exposure. I did a small happy dance when I saw it on NetGalley. It’s kind of excellent too, I mean think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but with less of the oh- so-confusing espionage stuff and the pages of words that made me sleepy and more excellent characterisation and beautiful narrative.
It’s set in 1960’s Cold War London and it’s part thriller, part love story, part character study. It’s got desire and it’s got secrets and it’s got betrayal and it’s such a good read. An ‘I don’t want to put this down’ kind of read actually.
It’s about this guy, Simon, who quite by accident ends up in possession of a file he should never have had and finds himself in prison, accused of selling information to the Soviets. Which, well that’s not A Good Thing, at all. This is the COLD WAR after all. His wife, Lily (who is excellent FYI and was also once upon a time a German Jew, forced to flee her home as a child just before the war) is certain he’s innocent and that there’s this big cover up and that all that’s being said is horribly wrong. She’s so certain that she’s prepared to take risks to protect him and you kind of wonder whether that blind faith is a flaw or a virtue. It’s definitely kind of misguided. She also knows that she, and her children, are in danger, that it lurks round every corner and that probably nobody is to be trusted, and Lily is desperate to be safe – who can blame her. She’s built this home, this haven for herself and her family and now it’s all about to crumble around her. She believes utterly in Simon and who he is and what he tells her and she has no idea of the secrets he’s keeping from her, secrets about his past, about former lives and loves and things that should they ever be revealed could have an impact far worse than any conviction of spying. So you’ve got Simon, stuck in prison, you’ve got Lily, so faithful and so freaking strong and determined to do whatever it takes to protect herself and her children and her husband and you’ve got Simon’s friend Giles, stuck in hospital with a septic wound that’s being treated by leeches and more scared probably than everyone else put together – he’s the one after all that took the file that landed Simon in prison home from the office when obviously that was a thing he should not have done and whereas Lily is portrayed as strong and loyal and good, you kind of know inherently that Giles will trample on anyone just to save himself, regardless of who they might have been to him once upon a time. Simon’s in prison and Giles is in hospital and it’s up to Lily to love and honour and defend against this utter bastard that tracks her down and knocks on her front door and that’s what it’s about really at it’s heart ,this book- not about espionage at all really but about what it means to love and about how the choices we make colour who we are and who we end up being.
It kind of feels like the kind of book you want to read in winter. Does that even make sense? You know when a book is cold and at the same time warm and feels like blankets and apple crumble and mugs of tea. That’s what Exposure feels like to me, like blankets and apple crumble and mugs of tea. It’s so well crafted and it’s engrossing and somehow both heart-warming and chilling and it goes in one direction and then sneaks off in another and you remain engaged with every single character and every single thread to the story even as the book switches from one point of view to another. It’s good, it’s really really good and honestly, I am so pleased I read it.
Exposure is out now. Go forth and read.