Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exposure: Helen Dunmore

Although I'm a big fan of Helen Dunmore, I almost didn't want to read this after the first few pages, intriguing as it was - because it re-creates so convincingly the world of post-war Britain. This was the world of my childhood. Unlike Lily, the main character in this book, I lived not in London but in the industrial midlands, and not in a private house but a council house - so there are differences. But what is instantly familiar is the sense of only just managing; the sense that, although there's enough to eat and enough money to buy what you need, there's only ever just enough: that there's only a thin curtain between everything being all right and everything being very much not all right. The war was over before I was born, but it still loomed large; there were shortages, and the war was part of everyday conversation among the grown-ups - not in a deep and meaningful way, but just part of everybody's frame of reference.

But the state kept an eye on you - particularly if you were a child. You got orange juice and cod liver oil from the clinic and small bottles of milk - as Dunmore describes - at playtime at school. Clothes were passed on or made by your mum; jumpers were hand-knitted. There was no such thing as jeans.

I'm rambling - but that's because this book takes you with such certainty and accuracy into that world. But it also takes you into another world - one which I only became aware of much later, through films and books and newspaper articles: the world of cold war spies. The two worlds co-existed - not in the Midlands industrial town where I was brought up, but certainly in the suburbs of London. Dunmore's heroine is Lily Callington: Lily who was originally Lili, a German Jew whose mother brought her over to England before the war. Lily speaks perfect English, and has done her best to forget she ever knew German. But she remembers. She remembers the first time she realised that even home wasn't safe; when she got in the lift to go up to their apartment  and a lady called her 'Dirty little Jew'. A 'nice lady in a summer dress with yellow and purple pansies on it'. Evil does not always come in the most obvious of guises.

Whose story is it? Is it Lily's? Or is it her husband, Simon's? Simon works for the civil service. He got the job through an older man, Giles, with whom he had an affair while he was at Cambridge. Giles loved Simon then, and still loves him, but Giles is a spy, and when an accident leaves him vulnerable to discovery, he decides to sacrifice Simon - Simon is a small player; he can take the blame. It's Giles' story too. And then there's Julian: the smooth, ruthless spy master. He's prepared to sacrifice anybody who might endanger him - but he reckons without Lily.

The book really has the feel and atmosphere of the fifties; of sitting in a living room close to the fire because there's no central heating, listening to the wireless - and on a bigger scale, of the political picture: the divided loyalties, suspicions and betrayals of the Cold War. But it's not all gloom and doom. There's love and courage, and ultimately, redemption. And, as ever with Helen Dunmore, beautiful writing.

1 comment:

  1. I am now interested in reading this. (Also just had a flashback image of my bare legs becoming blotchy and mottled pink from sitting too close to the fire.)