Book Review with Anna Caig - A sense here of two broken people

It is 1960. The Cold War is at its height and international espionage is big, dangerous business. Our expectations of a story set against this backdrop are glamour, excitement – maybe a few martinis and the odd car chase.

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 12:00 am
Exposure by Helen Dunmore
Exposure by Helen Dunmore

But along comes Simon Callington, an unlikely hero. A man who takes a call from a friend who, incapacitated after falling downstairs drunk, needs Simon to clear up the mess he’s left behind. Simon finds himself carrying a case of classified documents round London, dithering about what to do with them.

What becomes clear is that Simon is not the hero of this story at all. That role is filled by his wife, Lily, a woman with more grit in her little finger than he has in his whole body.

Lily came to Britain as a Jewish German refugee when she was a child, and feels danger all around her. She builds walls between herself and the people in her life, turning away potential friendships and even treating her children with a kind of unsentimental practicality.

When the mysterious case turns up, all her caution and mistrust come in handy and she calmly sets about sorting everything out. Lily is the still centre of this story and we grow to care about her very much.

Midway through, the story turns from an understated kitchen sink Le Carré into The Railway Children, all the while retaining its real page-turning quality as Lily works to keep her family safe.

Her and Simon’s marriage is beautifully depicted. While unconventional in many ways, there is a sense here of two broken people who have found their safe harbour. In one scene, they must communicate covert information under the watchful gaze of a prison warden, and such is their understanding of each other that they manage to do this calmly and efficiently.

They don’t share a traditional romantic love, and there are some pretty huge secrets in their marriage, but it’s convincing and ever so poignant.

Despite – or maybe even because of – the lack of Aston Martins, tuxedos and glamour, this book is riveting.