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!