I really enjoyed this, Helen Dunmore’s latest novel. Set in London in 1960 it is part Cold War spy story- but told from the point of view of a woman, unwittingly caught up in events, it explores the cost to family and relationships of men’s involvement in the business of betrayal. At the same time Helen Dunmore, with her gift for portraying the recent past, creates so well the feel of 1960- indoors all gas fires, radio plays and cigarettes, on the street the pervasive London fog and everywhere the fear of exposure.
The story begins when Giles Holloway, an older senior civil servant at the Admiralty, takes a file home with him which should have stayed in the office. Drunk, he falls down the stairs, ends up in hospital with the file on his desk at home and is desperate to get it returned to the office. Badly injured, he asks his younger colleague, Simon Callington, to return the file, thus embroiling Simon in the mess he’s got himself into, with serious consequences for Simon. Now, the woman’s perspective comes in with Simon’s wife Lily getting drawn in to the story and as we the readers have become privy to the world of each character through the narrative switching between them, we are right there with her as she finds herself alone with her children, not understanding what Simon has got into, desperately conscious of how she and her family are being seen by colleagues and neighbours and yet finding herself surrounded by silence rather than censure.
The domestic perspective is seen further in 11 year old Paul’s narrative. His world is one of practising for the 11 plus at school, quietly confident in his own ability, trainspotting and model making with his Dad at home. Seeing his world through his eyes, we share its cosy predictability and his shock at its shattering: Paul and Sally have to grow up quickly, look after their mother and little Bridget and together try to fathom a way forward.
The technique of switching narrators and using inner monologue of course allows us the reader to have background information on the characters. As Lily wonders about her mother we find out they are Jews who experienced antisemitism and escaped Nazi Germany. They have both made a good fist of keeping their heads down and assimilating, which may explain Lily’s apparent inability to recall her German despite being a gifted linguist. Her experiences may certainly account for her independence, resilience and quick thinking in a tight spot. And Simon, that loving father and husband, the unambitious graduate, content with his 2:1 and grateful to Giles for helping him get the job in the Admiralty. Lurking in his background is his difficult relationship with his own very posh family, the bullying brothers and cold parents- in his marriage to Lily he is trying to put a distance between them, to live by his own standards and values.
In Giles’ narrative, we also hear the voice of the upper class public school and Oxbridge educated Englishman- all ‘bloody’ this and ‘to hell with’ that, clipped curt sentences without a verb. Now I have to confess I felt a little impatient with this coming as it did at the start of the novel. Too much man talk. Too much Burgess and Maclean. Still, we have to be party to this to understand what Giles is up to and for the plot to move on. But when his injuries are slow to heal, Giles’ story morphs into an illness narrative and his experience of pain, fever and delirium is so graphically told that I found myself feeling sorry for him after all. And a mixture of horror and fascination for the treatment of maggot debridement applied to his gangrenous wound ( yes in 1960).
Of course, what we are also allowed to see, at times just fleetingly, through the inner monologue, is not just background information, but secrets. Just what one would expect in a Cold War spy story- though I have to admit that I felt at times I didn’t quite have a handle on what exactly was going on at the Admiralty. Probably my fault, reading too late at night and not sufficiently immersed in the genre. But more powerful for me was the emergence of other, more personal, secrets and what this means, particularly for Lily, our heroine. By a slow and controlled exposure to these secrets, Helen Dunmore maintains our interest in the outcome right to the end as well as our sympathy for Lily.
So to my mind this novel is a really exciting example of a possibly new genre- a spy story with a woman at the heart of it. I’m keen now to read ‘ A Quiet Life’ by Natasha Walter also with a woman at the centre of a spy story and reviewed here by Christobel Kent in the Guardian. Now Helen Dunmore rightly has a huge following of readers like me and I have to be frank and say this novel is not ‘The Siege’, that fabulous book which is right up there with Madame Bovary in my top novels to be reread every ten years. Nevertheless it is a compelling, tender and thought provoking novel which conveys unequivocally the many dimensions to exposure in Cold War Britain.