Prolific British author Dunmore, who has published poetry, children’s literature, and a range of adult fiction (The Lie, 2014, etc.), shifts gears yet again with this Cold War–era spy drama.
Drama as opposed to mystery because there is no question about who’s passing secrets. Readers know early on that Giles Holloway and his spymaster, Julian Clowde, are moles in the British Admiralty, where Julian holds a high position. This is 1960, the defection of actual spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean is public knowledge, and Giles senses he’s being watched. One night after photographing a file for Julian in his secret attic office, Giles falls down his stairs in a fluke accident that leaves him seriously injured. Since Julian is unavailable in Venice, Giles calls co-worker Simon Callington from his hospital bed to ask a favor: get the file and return it to Julian’s desk. But Simon is clearly no spy, merely a middling civil servant without ambition. After an unhappy childhood being bullied by his brothers, all Simon cares about is the haven of normalcy he has created with his children and wife, Lily, a Jew who escaped Germany in 1937 and remains fearfully conscious of her outsider status in England. But out of lingering affection and guilt—before meeting Lily, while still a student at Cambridge, he broke off an intense love affair with Giles—Simon agrees to retrieve the file against his better judgment. When he sees the designation “Top Secret,” Simon realizes that Giles lacked authorization to read the file, let alone bring it home, and was probably spying. Afraid that returning it will place Simon himself under suspicion, he brings the file home, where Lily finds it and does whatever she considers necessary to save her family.
This subtle, off-kilter foray into John le Carré territory—a chilling, thoughtful, deeply romantic drama about the collateral damage suffered by those on the periphery of world events—displays Dunmore's gifts as one of today’s most elegant and versatile storytellers.