Exposure by Helen Dunmore: Review

exposureI owe Helen Dunmore an apology. She’s been a writer I’ve been aware of for years but though I knew she had a strong following, it wasn’t until last year that I got around to reading her myself. My mistake was to make The Greatcoat my first experience. In my review I described this as a novel in which Dunmore did a superb job of creating the atmosphere of post World War 2 Britain but I found the plot implausible. What I didn’t realise was this was not her usual genre. How fortunate then that the publication this year of her new novel has given me a chance to see where I went wrong.

Exposure is set a few years after The Greatcoat but the view of England it conveys is of a country still suffering from the deprivations of the war years. We’re in 1960. Rationing has been lifted. London is no longer blighted by yellow smog thanks to the Clean Air Act. But the country is still in a make do and mend mentality and just as suspicious of ‘foreigners’. For the inhabitants of this small island, suspicions about ‘foreigners’  morph into anxieties that there may be spies lurking in their midst. This is the time of the Cold War and tension between the West and the Eastern Bloc.

Dunmore brings domestic and political concerns together through a plot in which the life of a seemingly ordinary middle class family living in a very ordinary  terraced house in London is thrown into turmoil when the father is arrested.  Simon Callington is an insignificant figure. Every day he dutifully heads off to his civil service job at The Admiralty, returning home to listen to a play on the radio or spend time with his railway-mad son.  He becomes an innocent bystander in a plot to cover up a spy ring when all he did was to help out an old friend (who turns out to be the real spy).Yet he is the one in jail awaiting trial. Meanwhile his wife Lily gives up her teaching job and escapes public attention and humiliation by spiriting the children far away to a small village on the English coast.

For both Lily and Simon, the crisis is a time when both fear the secrets of their past lives may be uncovered. Lily was once Lili Brandt,  a Jew taken to London as a small child to escape the fate dealt to so many of her family in Germany. In London she worked carefully to eradicate all traces of her accent and build a new life. But the investigation into Simon’s actions threaten to expose her origins to people who equate all Germans with Nazis.

The issue of secrets is evident right from the opening of the book:”It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know” thinks Simon as he sits in a railway carriage lost in reflections about the past. Did he really not know that his oldest friend Giles and his boss at the Admiralty, were not pillars of the Establishment but part of an espionage ring? Or did he know and choose to ignore it? Either way he gets caught in the web of concealment when a Top Secret file goes missing and he is set up as the fall guy with the threat his former homosexual habits will be exposed if he doesn’t fall into line.

Exposure isn’t a spy thriller. The focus isn’t on the mechanics of espionage or in the suspense of discovering the guilty party. Though the plot does move at a rapid pace the interest lies really on exploring the consequences of one small decision, one small act, on a family.  While Simon is an interesting figure, it’s Lily who holds our attention with her resilience and determination to protect her family and stay loyal to her husband.

This character and the atmosphere Dunmore creates through small details of domestic life made this a very satisfying book to read. If this is an example of what she can do, I’ll be making an appointment with her back catalogue soon I suspect.

Thanks to the publishers Random House for providing a copy via NetGalley.

For other views on this novel do take a look at the reviews on Shoshibookblog and HeavenAli.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 22, 2016, in Book Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. The objective of “Exposure” by Helen Dunmore is to examine the consequences for a middle class London family of the “dad” being the subject of a criminal prosecution. For effect, it is back dated to the 1960s when the middle class were truly the middle class.

    No effort is put into developing a credible plot. To create the problem, the dad, Simon, behaves with a level of stupidity that can have no relationship to the normal behaviour of an employee of the British admiralty who has been briefed on and operates under the official secrets act. To further develop the problem his wife has to behave in a most extraordinary manner. To get the family out of the problem and deliver a happy ending, one of the main characters has to suffer a fatal illness and develop a most unexpected attack of conscience and the main villain has to put himself in an amazing and uncharacteristically vulnerable position where he can be bumped off and made disappear.

    The incredibility of the plot destroys any possibility of enjoying the story. For a plausible treatment of the subject “Apply Tree Yard” by Louise Doughty should be read.

    • Oh dear I get the distinct impression you didnt rate this book at all. I dont have any knowledge to guage whether her husbands actions are credible given his training. I just took the plot device at face value

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed giving this author a second chance 🙂

  3. Great review! And thank you for warning me about ‘The Greatcoat.’ I really enjoyed ‘Exposure’ and intend to read more of her works, but it’s always good to also know which books to avoid!

  4. I’ve just skim read your review as I have this scheduled to read at the end of the week. I’m glad though that you have found yourself warming to Dunmore because I think she is an exceptional writer. I came to her first through her novels for children which never sell the reader short, and only later discovered what an excellent adult novelist and poet she is. Do read ‘The Siege’, which will tear your heart to pieces but which is a superb piece of writing.

  5. I remember reading A Spell of Winter and enjoying it but haven’t read her much since. Having just finished a big biography of le Carre I can feel a bit of a yearning for a spy novel so maybe I’ll give this one a go.

  6. Do try A Spell of Winter, as well–it’s the one she won the Orange Prize for, in 1997(?), and I thought it was absolutely fantastic.

  7. Delighted to hear that you’ve been converted to Dunmore’s writing! The Greatcoat was published under the Hammer horror imprint and so is quite some way outside her usual purview. It would be a great shame if it had put you off entirely.

    • Unless the book is absolutely dire then I often give the author a second chance. And sometimes like with Dunmore and Elizabeth Taylor it worked. Now Kate Morton doesn’t get that chance with me no matter how much other people love (I couldnt get beyond page 20 of The Secret Garden)

  8. I’ve yet to try Dunmore myself, but this might be the one to tempt me. Like crimeworm, I’ve seen several positive reviews of it across the blogosphere, so it’s good to know that you found it more satisfying than The Greatcoat.

  9. I haven’t read her before but I do have Exposure here, and plan to start it soon. I’ve read a lot of reviews of it on the blogosphere, and I can honestly say they have all been positive reviews, so I’m looking forward to it – and thanks for the tip, Christina, re The Siege.

  10. christina chicago

    I would read The Siege. I did so many years ago and it has stayed with me. I did not expect to like it as much as I did, but reading about daily life during wartime was fascinating and suspenseful. Her writing had a photographic quality to it. I have hundreds of books lying about but that is one I could imagine reading again.

    • Thanks for that recommendation Christina. It’s one I had in mind. It was the daily life aspect of Exposure I enjoyed so if The Siege has that element I should be happy

  11. Ah, maybe I have made the same mistake. I read The Lie and found it wanting. I’m all for writers venturing into different kinds of writing, but how are readers supposed to know what they are in for? Book covers used to be a sort of code but now books I *do* like often have the same dreary Getty Image kind of covers as the commercial dross.

  1. Pingback: Where The Trip Takes Us……… Exposure by Helen Dunmore | Inside A Dog

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