BOOK REVIEW: Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure by Helen DunmoreExposure
By: Helen Dunmore
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publication Date: 28 January 2016
Format: Ebook, 400 pages

London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets.
When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested.
His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall.
She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty. (Goodreads)

DividerA novel exploring the highs and lows of espionage, Exposure by Helen Dunmore primarily explores the effects a secret life can have upon a family.

Opening with an introduction into Simon and Lily Callington’s perfect 1960s family life with their two children, at first it seems like there couldn’t possibly be any secrets in their marriage. Lily had originally come to England as a child from Germany, arousing the suspicions of the locals in a post-war community. In marrying Simon she feels like she has finally found acceptance, not realising that her world is about to be shaken.

Her misfortune comes at the hands of one Giles Holloway, an aging operative who likes his drink and solitude. We witness him take an unfortunate tumble down the stairs and, with no-one around to help him, he then ends up in hospital in a serious condition. When he comes to, all he can think about are some vital documents left on the desk in his flat. Simon is the only one he can think of to call and ask to retrieve the papers, hoping he will do it for old times sake. Retrieving the papers and their respective suitcase from the flat goes against Simon’s better judgement, especially when he sees the name ‘Julian Clowde’ written across the top.

Nevertheless, he takes the case home and hides it under the stairs, hoping to dispose of it before anyone can be any the wiser. Of course, it was never going to be that simple, and Simon is soon arrested on suspicion of disclosing secrets to the Russians, leaving Lily to dispose of the case and look after the family all on her own. Suspecting that she might end up danger herself, there is a race against time to find out the truth and set Simon free.

Throughout the novel we are aware that Simon is innocent of the crime he has been accused of, and that there is some greater force at work with designs on that suitcase. However, we never really know much about this Julian Clowde and what hand he has to play in all this, only that he is connected to both Giles and Simon. It made it difficult to assess the threat level and to feel any tension, as the reader is almost kept in the dark as much as Lily. I wouldn’t say that we ever really learn the true contents of the suitcase either.

As far as characterisation goes, it is mainly Lily and Giles that we are closest to, as Simon’s perspectives go relatively quiet after his incarceration. For Lily, her husband’s imprisonment and subsequent bad press has left her feeling as victimized as she did during her childhood, with the papers dredging up her heritage and questioning whether her German influence is at fault here. All she wants is for her children to grow up safely, and not to suffer as she once did, yet at the same time it has given her a core strength to stand up to her persecutors. Despite the book being set during the Cold War, Lily displays traits of modernism and an ability to cope on her own, making her a very admirable character.

It was somewhat more difficult to like Giles, as the majority of his segments are from his hospital bed, often filled with details about his condition and the nurses’ treatment of him. Unfortunately his fall was worse than he thought, leaving him bedbound for longer than expected and making it difficult for him to have any input in Simon’s defence or to apologise for asking too much of him. His perspective is melancholic and nostalgic, as Giles longs for the past when times were easier, feeling like it was the only time he actually felt close to another human being. He despairs ever asking Simon for help, and his sense of helplessness steadily increases as the novel goes on. He knows more about Julian than we realise, and it is never quite clear how much he knows about the grand plans at work in the background.

As much as I enjoyed getting to know the characters of this book and following Lily’s search to free her husband from prison, there were too many details throughout the book that remained vague. For example, we never know the full extent of Giles’ involvement in espionage, or even what Julian’s role is. I’m not even sure whether Simon was involved in the same industry or not, let alone how the revelation of certain secrets towards the end of the book will play out in their marriage. I would have liked a few more questions answered along the way to make this book more enjoyable, but on the whole I enjoyed the writing style and am open to trying another of Dunmore’s books.

An intriguing look into how secrets can rip family life apart, this novel successfully explores the threats of espionage and how wrongful imprisonment is not easy to prove. It introduces a small selection of characters who are easy to understand, but does remain vague on plot points that could easily have been expanded upon. I would have liked there to be more direction throughout the book and for there not to be such uncertainty, but the book was well written and I would read another of Dunmore’s novels.

3 star




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