Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Consequences of Betrayal (Books - Exposure by Helen Dunmore)

Helen Dunmore's Exposure (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) is a gently genre-defying novel - a deep and satisfying story of relationships posing as a cold war spy novel.  It  is as if someone were filming an espionage thriller and this is the story from the backstage perspective.  The actor makes his entrance into the office to be challenged on the missing pages from the dossier, but you, the reader, are watching him as he prepares off-set, smooth back his hair prior to his entrance, and when he enters to play the scene, instead of focusing on the written dialogue, you hear a voice-over of what he is thinking while playing the scene.

Since this is the obverse of an espionage novel, the plot as such is not the point, but... it is the 1960s. Lily's husband, Simon, who works a mid-level job for British Intelligence, is asked by his superior, Giles, to return a sensitive file when Giles unexpectedly lands in the hospital.  Lily unwittingly discovers it and buries it to protect her husband.  Simon is just unimportant enough in the power hierarchy, and the file just important enough, that he becomes a scapegoat when its disappearance must be covered up. He home is searched. He is carted off, awaiting a courtroom trial in a jail cell and Lily and her children gradually become ostracized.

Lily came to England as a German Jewish refugee pre-World War II.  As she struggles to protect her young children from the fallout of her husband's disgrace, her own memories of being a child in a threatening situation of which she has a limited understanding surface.  Lily's mother speaking to her in German flows into the next sentence in which Lily speaks to her own children. Dunmore frames the novel with Simon's memory of being tormented by his brothers as a child for being different from them.   Dunmore does not announce these shifts and the result is a beautifully complex narrative that layers past and present seamlessly. That seamlessness is essential in this novel about the impact of the past on the present. 

This perspective affords the reader a viewpoint of innocence.  As we lose that innocence we learn that people are not only who they appear to be on the surface.  But it is not a permanent kind of learning, the past penetrates the present when the mind returns to that state in love, when we gain trust, the feeling that we know another.  That secure state is one of the allures of intimacy.  Each betrayal of that trust is a devastation.  

This sort of betrayal is the subject of Dunmore's Exposure.  Her accomplishment is the subtle juxtaposition of personal with national betrayal.  The foundation of Cold War politics was mistrust - seeing duplicity everywhere.  This is especially sad for being born out of the carnage of World War II. When Lily reaches England after fleeing Germany, her mother says to her that they came to this new country so that she would never feel unsafe again. I read this while visiting the UK just following the Brexit vote,  One wonders if Lily and her mother would have found refuge had they tried to flee today.  It seems that we are again seeing betrayal everywhere. 

Giles too time-travels through memory to earlier, more idyllic years, while ailing in the hospital, years in which he was in love.  Although Giles is a spy, his deception goes deeper than hiding his profession as Giles is gay.  Living in a country where this is criminalized, his deception is constant.  He not only betrays others, but also himself. As he lies in bed, Giles confronts his mortality or "Good old extinction," as he calls it.
He dreams of falling from shocking heights, and wakes with a jolt, sweating, struggling for air.  Nurse Davies has left the bell within reach.  He puts his finger on it, but he doesn't push the button. He knows that he's breathless from panic, not want of oxygen. If he keeps very still, his breathing will steady.  He hears footsteps, and the nurses' night-time voices. They're only just outside. No need to call them.  He turns his head to see the luminous hands of his travelling clock.  Only ten to two, Ma C. brought in his little folding clock in its brown leather case that has been all over the world with him.  Who'd have thought it would end up here? There it is, ticking away, just as it ticked in Vienna and Istanbul, My God, what sights that clock has seen.
The difference between Dunmore's novel and the spy novel as we know it, is that the suspense doesn't come from a breathless car chase or a scene where the protagonist sneaks into the office to photograph the papers, the tension here is of a more existential sort.  The genius of Exposure is Dunmore's imagining of what prompts these truths to surface.  Her props are almost banal - a childhood memory, a dossier tossed behind the children's clothing in a wardrobe, a travelling clock sitting by the bedside.  Their familiarity, and the time Dunmore takes to set them in the commonplace world she has fashioned, prompt the reader to place themselves there and ask not ''who did what, but instead - what now. What are the consequences of this betrayal?  Good question.

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