Exposure by Helen Dunmore – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
Reading like a version of The Railway Children for adults, Helen Dunmore’s latest novel Exposure, tells the story of three children and their mother who struggle to survive when the father of the family, a civil servant working in the Admiralty, is arrested and accused of espionage and treason. Set in London in 1960 it describes a society struggling with the effects of the Cold War but unlike many of John Le Carré’s novels on a similar theme its focus is not on the spies and their intrigues but on the effect of their actions on those around them.
Exposure begins with decent family man Simon Callington married to Lily, originally Lili, a German Jewish refugee. He works at the Admiralty in a job secured for him by Giles Holloway, a close friend from their Cambridge days. His apparently comfortable, uncomplicated life begins to unravel when Holloway is hospitalised after a bad fall and asks Callington to return to work a Top Secret file that he should never have taken home. What follows is initially quite predictable but as the story shifts from Callington and the accusations of espionage to Lily and the children who have to deal with the publicity and its consequences, it changes from a novel of suspense to a domestic drama.
Dunmore’s focus in her novels has always been how ordinary individuals cope in extraordinary circumstances. The Siege, nominated for the Orange prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2002, told of a group of people struggling to survive the German siege of Leningrad during WW2 and in her linked book, The Betrayal, some of the same characters face daily hardships in the paranoid world of Stalinist rule. Her 2014 novel, The Lie, tells of the difficulties of Daniel Branwell who returns to his native Cornwall after four years of fighting in the trenches during WW1, trying to find his place in a world he no longer recognises.
If you are looking for a fast paced spy story with twists and turns, Exposure, is probably not the book for you. Dunmore’s interest is more in the growth and motivation of her characters than in an action-driven plot. Her story at times seems to have a quality of déjà vu with the inclusion of a homosexual spy ring (very Burgess and Maclean) and the constant references to the plot of The Railway Children but this does not mean that it lacks tension or that our attention ever flags. Her focus may be domestic but political intrigue and abuse of power play a pivotal role. However, while her main characters are clearly drawn, there is a certain quality of caricature in the roles played by top civil servants, Giles Holloway and Julian Cloud, who from the start are identified as the villains of the piece.
The reader, Emma Fenney, tells the story well though there is at times a breathy quality to her reading that is quite unnecessary. Dunmore’s work, both as poet and novelist, is characterised by its rich sensuality and the stark emotional truths at its core. This sensibility, along with the small domestic and personal details at which she excels, transcends genre. It is these elements that linger in the mind long after Exposure’s satisfying conclusion.
The audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 10h26 mins.