Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure What a great book! I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about reading it; I thought Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, The Lie, was disappointing, and the descriptions of this one as a Cold War spy novel didn’t sound very appealing to me. I wanted to give Dunmore another chance, though, so I decided it would be worth giving Exposure a try.

The first thing I need to say is that although Exposure certainly is a Cold War spy novel of sorts, it’s also a compelling story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, as seen through the eyes of a wonderful cast of strong and complex characters. One of them, Simon Callington, is a quiet, unambitious young man who works for the Admiralty in London and who looks forward to coming home to his wife and children at the end of each day. The last thing he wants is to be involved in any controversy, but that is exactly what happens one night in November 1960 when he receives a call for help from his friend and colleague, Giles Holloway.

As a student, Simon had been drawn to Giles because he was older and more sophisticated; now, however, Giles is a rather sad and lonely man with a drink problem, and when he falls down the stairs and ends up in hospital with a broken leg, Simon is the only person he feels he can trust. Just before he fell, Giles was working on a secret file – a file he should never have brought home from work – and he needs Simon to retrieve it from his desk and return it to the office before anyone notices it was missing. Simon agrees, but unknown to him, Giles’s home is being watched.

The decisions Simon makes on that fateful night and in the days which follow will have serious consequences for both Simon himself and for his family – his wife, Lily, and their three children, Paul, Sally and Bridget. It’s Lily, in my opinion, who is the real star of this novel. Having fled to England with her mother as Jewish refugees in the 1930s, she has spent her whole adult life trying to hide her German origins and now, with Simon in trouble, it’s more important than ever that her past is kept a secret. Lily is put under a huge amount of pressure, yet remains strong, resourceful and determined to do whatever it takes to protect her husband and children.

Simon also has a secret which he has been concealing even from Lily and if it is revealed his situation will become even more precarious than it already is. With all three of our main characters – Giles, Simon and Lily – at risk of exposure, the tension and the atmosphere of darkness and danger build and build throughout the story. The writing and structure of the novel are both excellent, dipping into the past where necessary to explore a character’s background, helping us to understand the person they are in the present. Dunmore also includes just enough period detail to set the story firmly in the early 1960s without going into an excessive amount of description.

Some elements of the novel made me think of the plot of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (and I’m sure we’re supposed to make the connection) but Exposure is also an exciting and original novel in its own right. I loved it and am so pleased I didn’t let The Lie put me off reading more of Helen Dunmore’s books!

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12 thoughts on “Exposure by Helen Dunmore

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I find it curious that novelists are still writing about the Cold War. I guess it is historical fiction by now right? I am currently hacking away at my 1962 reading list, one year before le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was published. 1963 will be the year that he put Cold War espionage fiction on the literary map. I like le Carre even though he is sometimes a bit opaque, but I think I would like this one too.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, you could describe it as historical fiction, although I tend not to think of the 1960s as historical as they’re still within living memory for so many people. I haven’t read anything by le Carre yet, so I’m pleased to hear you like him!

  2. heavenali says:

    I really enjoyed this one. I have read a few Dunmore novels but still have several to read including The Lie – I have seen other mixed reports of it, but will probably still give it a go.

    • Helen says:

      Maybe you’ll enjoy The Lie more than I did. I didn’t dislike it exactly, but it probably wasn’t a good one for me to have started with. I’m looking forward to reading some of Dunmore’s other books now.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I loved this one, and yes, I agree we’re supposed to have made the connection with The Railway Children. As you say, the structure is great – so often with these ones that go back into the past it can begin to feel confused, but she managed to keep the timelines flowing alongside each other. It’s the only one of hers I’ve read, but I’m looking forward to trying some of her others – maybe I won’t start with The Lie though!

    • Helen says:

      Other people seem to have enjoyed The Lie, so maybe it’s just me. It wasn’t a bad book, but didn’t have the emotional impact I’d expected from a First World War story. I loved this one, though, and I’m glad you did as well!

  4. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    Your reply to Judy, your cut-off point for historical fiction; as I was reading your review I was wondering if it ought to be considered it or not. It’s a difficult one to say because it does seem historical but some of it wasn’t all that long ago. Glad you liked it and will be reading more. I’ve not read Dunmore myself but I’ll be on the lookout now!

    • Helen says:

      I usually stick with the guidelines set by the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – that the majority of the storyline must take place at least 60 years before the book was published. I suppose it’s up to the individual reader what they consider to be historical, though. And yes, I’ll definitely be reading more Dunmore now!

    • Helen says:

      A lot of people seem to have been disappointed with The Great Coat. I have plenty of Dunmore’s other novels to read so I’m not in any hurry to read that one!

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