Helen Dunmore was a really very remarkable writer. It still makes me sad that she passed away last year at far too young an age. What else would she have accomplished and how many other wonderful books might she have written? Even now, she is still posthumously winning awards for her books. She was the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, and some of books have been long and shortlisted for a variety of other prestigious awards. Her work has spanned numerous genres and she wrote both for children and adults. I have read a handful of her books and they range in subject from a novel about D.H. Lawrence, stories of WWI and Leningrad under siege, a ghost story and other works of historical fiction and likely other topics I have yet to discover.
I've just finished her 2016 novel Exposure, a story set in Cold War-era London that is ostensibly a spy novel, but is really something far more complex and broader in theme. If you think you don't like spy stories, you might try this one as the espionage aspects are both on the periphery and deep in the heart, but it is all the flesh parts of the story--the daily lives, the challenges and aspirations that make up what we all call "life" that make this story so very rich and complex.
What happens when ordinary people get caught up in extraordinary events? It's like that moment when Tess in Thomas Hardy's novel slides that life-altering letter under Angel Clare's door, but it gets pushed under a rug hidden from the eyes of the man it is meant for. One small act will throw lives into turmoil. So, too, one small act in this story sets off a series of life altering and potentially destructive events. Ordinary lives, honorable people with no ill-intentions snared in a web not of their making and not easily disentangled.
Simon and Lily and their three young children are an average British family leading a quiet middle class life in London. On the surface they are just like their neighbors, putting away money as they earn to buy nicer things for their home. Simon and his son spend time train watching and Lily is a teacher helping make ends meet while running a household. There are some things, however, about them that are perhaps not entirely average, but by no means unusual. Simon has a government job dealing with sensitive materials. While he is subject to the Official Secrets Act he is at a lower level and not privy to heavily classified materials. Lily is British to the core, but not British born. She emigrated from Germany, but she is Jewish. A distinction that not everyone understands or makes. In any other situation these are mere details that make little difference to daily life. But in the wrong circumstances they are details that can be twisted and used against them by both friend and foe.
"It isn't what you know or don't know; it's what you allow yourself to know. I understand this now. I'm on my way home, in a second-class smoker from Victoria. I stare out over the network of roofs, shining with rain. The train wheels click into a canter. I have to change on to the branch line at Ashford, but that's a long way yet."
"It turns out that I knew everything. All the facts were in my head and always had been. I ignored them, because it was easier. I didn't want to make connections. I've begun to understand that I've been half asleep all my life, and now I'm waking up. Or perhaps I am kidding myself, and it's like one of those nightmares where you push your way up through sticky layers of consciousness and think you've woken. You sweat with relief because it's over. You're back in the waking world. And then, out of the corner of your eye, you see them coming."
It takes just one small act. An old friend and a work colleague has taken something home from the office. A file he should not have removed. One he is not even meant to see, but he takes it home. Then in a moment of disorientation, a moment of befuddlement due to a little too much whiskey and too many things in his hands, he stumbles and falls down a set of stairs and everything comes, quite literally collapsing down around him. He has something he should not and so he calls the one man he thinks would be willing to help him get out of this scrape.
Simon knows he should not. Normally he would not. But Giles is someone from his past, so against his better judgement he goes to pick up the file from Giles's rooms, but already the wheels are set in motion. There is someone else in the apartment, but he gets the classified file and puts it into a briefcase and brings it to his home. Things have not come off as easily as Giles thought they would. He is away now in hospital and Simon has hidden the briefcase behind the household wellies to be dealt with as soon as he can. But Lily finds the case as she is cleaning. She sees the file and the initials and the sensitive documents. She knows just enough of Simon's work to know what trouble this can cause. Unknown to Simon she buries the case and documents inside deep in the garden. But it's too late to cover things up. And then comes the knock at the door.
This is one of those stories that you watch partly in fascinated horror and gripping suspense. It is like an accident that you see happening but can do nothing at all to stop. Contrary forces put it all in motion, forces that are meant to right those actions causing the accident, but all those well-meant intentions just dig that hole deeper and deeper. Layer on to it all secrets from the past, thought long and well hidden. This is an exceptional story, very carefully and subtly constructed. It's a story about human folly and all the things we keep so well hidden inside that cause us to stumble when they are meant to be kept locked away. I'm glad I have not read all of Helen Dunmore's work as that means there are still stories left to discover.
This was my January prompt and off to a good start. Although I am ready for something more by Helen Dunmore, and another spy novel, too, I'm turning my attention to February's prompt and will be sharing my potential reads later this week.