London, 1960. The height of the Cold War. Simon Callington lives with his wife Lily and their three children. He's a minor official at the Admiralty who agrees to bail out old friend and fellow co-worker Giles after Giles ends up in hospital under suspicious circumstances. That the file Simon recovers from Giles' flat is meant to be passed on to someone else is clear but it being in Simon's possession at all implicates him in something bigger than he ever expected and he finds himself morally trapped. Simon must be the fall guy for his accidental discovery and he must keep quiet, even in the face of innocence, to protect himself and so many others from their own shame of exposure whether it be over the espionage itself or a hidden heritage or a homosexual affair. How his silent complicity affects everyone else in the novel drives the majority of the story, rather than the secrets hidden in the file. Everyone is hiding something, holding close their own secrets, and shying away from exposure, making everyone suspect in their own way.
Dunmore is masterful in her drawing of this subtle, threatening tale. The complexity of weaving each character's point of view together, explaining all of the various omissions and secretive actions that could have changed their trajectories is done so very well that the reader never once wonders why the obvious truth remained so shrouded in mystery. She taps into the secrecy and paranoia of the time period, as well as its banality, beautifully. Both Simon and Lily are fearful of sharing their secrets, of shattering the life they have built, making them the perfect people to be manipulated by the faceless espionage ring. There is a slow rising tension, a looming unease, as the narrative progresses even though not much happens until the unexpected climax, right near the end when the narrative is quickly blown open only to close over again just as quickly. A stunning way to end a novel about fear and shame and secrets. Definitely not a traditional espionage thriller, this is tangled and complicated and menacing and an adroit, skillful look at human beings in all their inscrutability.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.