Not your typical spy novel

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It’s 1960, the Cold War years. Giles is a gifted, though drunken public servant, he is gay, Russian-speaking and working as a spy with the Admiralty in London. He obtains a file and takes it home to review. It’s one he shouldn’t have. Then, he has a fall in his apartment and wakes up in hospital. The file must be returned before it is missed. An associate, his partner in crime so to speak, is on holiday in Venice. So Giles calls Simon, who also works at the Admiralty though in a much lower position. Simon used to be his boyfriend, but is now a married man with three children. Giles, however, can trust him, and in any case, there’s nobody else. Simon submissively collects the file, realizes its significance and behaves with astonishing stupidity.

This gets the novel, Exposure, going and the reader soon realizes that it’s not the spy novel they thought it was at all, it’s not even a thriller, though the tension may be heightened. It’s a novel about families and allegiance, divided loyalties. The vital figure in this novel isn’t Giles or Simon, though what used to be their relationship is of utmost importance, hence the book’s title. It’s Simon’s wife, Lily. She finds Giles objectionable and doesn’t trust him, though ignorant of what he once meant to Simon. She adores her husband and is completely involved in her family life and seems like the typical homemaker.

But, Lily used to be Lili. She was born in Berlin, a German Jew. She and her mother got out in time when Lili was a small girl. Her mother insisted that Lili be Lily and speak nothing but English. She has forgotten her German, and since has basically denied her heritage. She knows how to survive and look after what she holds most dear. When things go wrong and Simon is arrested she is at once resolute, resourceful and afraid, she distrusts and fears the police, the state and the Admiralty.

This novel, like all decent novels, centers on the development of the hero or heroine’s moral education; they tell of the character’s developing appreciation of what really matters in life, of what is important in the world. The three main characters in this book, Simon, Lily and Giles all go through this experience.

Dunmore is audacious in that she gives away her ending in the prologue, which she does so as to not to divert from what really matters in the novel – our responsibilities as human beings. The espionage setting only touches peripherally on the world of 007. It is the cogs and wheels of the novel; which allows Dunmore to examine more important matters: the nature of love, the questions of loyalty and of what we owe to whom.

Overall, I enjoyed this book; it was fast paced and clearly written and kept me guessing until the end. If you take pleasure in the maneuvering of a good spy story but have struggled with John le Carre’s complex story lines this might just be the book for you. I give Exposure by Helen Dunmore 3.7/5.

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