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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1742

Author: Helen Dunmore (b. 1952)

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Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (New York). 391 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1960s

Locale: London

Helen Dunmore’s novel Exposure is a thriller set in London in the 1960s during the Cold War era.

Principal characters

Lily Callington, an English housewife and schoolteacher; formerly Lili Brand, a German JewCourtesy of Grove AtlanticCourtesy of Caroline Forbes

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Simon Callington, her husband, an English civil servant

Paul Callington, her eleven-year-old son

Giles Holloway, an English double agent and Simon’s former lover

Helen Dunmore’s novel Exposure is a Cold War thriller set in suburban London in 1960. Simon and Lily Callington have built a cozy, middle-class life for themselves and their three young children. Simon is a civil servant in the Admiralty, an organization that oversees the Royal Navy, and Lily is a part-time schoolteacher who uses her earnings to furnish their tiny home in Muswell Hill. Paul, their eleven-year-old son, loves trains and longs for Saturdays where he and his father can ride them through the city. But the family’s idyll is more tenuous than it appears; one late-night phone call and an unusual request set in motion a chilling series of events that threaten to uncover long-buried secrets and destroy the Callingtons’ lives forever.

Dunmore is a British poet and novelist who writes for both children and adults. A number of her books are set during the World Wars or in their immediate aftermath. Her novel The Siege (2001) is about the deadly Siege of Leningrad, in which six hundred thousand people died between 1941 and 1944. Her 2010 novel The Betrayal is set in the wreckage of that city nearly a decade later. The Greatcoat (2012), a ghost story, is set in England in 1952 and features a couple starting a new life only to be confronted by the horrors of World War II through the eyes of a dead RAF pilot. In The Lie (2014), an English veteran wrestles with his demons after World War I. The wars shaped both the physical and emotional landscape of twentieth-century Europe, and for Dunmore this has been fruitful terrain in which to explore themes of love, loss, and survival. In Exposure, Dunmore captures the anxieties and ambitions specific to London fifteen years after the end of World War II. German bombers razed entire swaths of the city during the Blitz in 1940 and 1941, and Londoners banded together to rebuild under harsh austerity measures and rationing that did not end until the 1950s. Postwar London was defined by an intense nationalism as well as a lurking fear that another war was on the horizon.

The first chapter of Exposure opens on an ordinary autumn afternoon. A train whistle, painful and shrill, interrupts Lily’s thoughts while she is working in her vegetable garden. The sound is jangling to her nerves; she has to remind herself of who she is, where she is, and where her children are. The trigger is unsurprising given Lily’s history. Lily, a German Jew born Lili Brand, harbors a fear from the war that is so intense that she claims to have forgotten how to speak German, her native language. Lily and her mother escaped the Nazi regime in 1937, two years before the war began, and spent the duration in England, learning how to assimilate into English society. Even as an adult, Lily is fond of English idioms and social customs, and though she has little reason to keep her past a complete secret, she finds comfort in the anonymity of English postwar unity. The war years manifest themselves in her in other ways as well. Though she and Simon are comfortable financially, Lily is obsessively frugal with money and food.

Simon’s youth was quite different from that of his wife. He grew up in a wealthy English family, though he always felt out of place. At Cambridge University he shirks his aristocratic upbringing by eating beans out of a can and dramatically tossing the expensive cheese his mother sends him out of his dorm room window. Unbeknownst to Lily, whom he met much later, Simon also had an intense love affair with a man named Giles Holloway. Life as a gay man was dangerous then (and remained dangerous in 1960s London), a fact emphasized by Giles’s frequent references to the tragic fate of Oscar Wilde, the brilliant Irish writer who was sentenced to prison and publicly humiliated for having sex with a man. A similar fate befell Alan Turing, the computer genius and code breaker who helped Britain and the Allies win World War II, but was nevertheless prosecuted for homosexual acts and sentenced to chemical castration. Simon is not nearly so famous or so important, but as the stories of Wilde and Turing show, a paranoid culture is all too willing to eat its own. By drawing parallels between Simon’s twin persecutions—being attracted to men and, allegedly, being a communist—Dunmore evokes a rich and troubling history.

In the book’s present, Simon is happy with Lily—he left the swaggering, alcoholic Giles long ago—but it is the lingering warmth that he has for his friend and former lover that sets him on a path to destruction. Giles and Simon both work for the Admiralty, but Giles is a double agent, funneling British naval information to the Soviets. It is the height of the Cold War and anxiety about Soviet spies—and, by extension, the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union—hangs over Europe and the United States like a pall. Giles is good at his job, but on this particular day he is careless. Having taken home a particularly sensitive file, he falls down the stairs of his apartment in a drunken stupor, breaking his leg. Panicking, he calls Simon to retrieve the file from his bedroom—where a blackout blind remains in place from the war—and return it to his office. Simon agrees, but when he arrives at the apartment, he understands the full implication of Giles’s request. Simon takes the file home, but cavalierly refuses to return it to the office because he realizes this may get both Giles and himself into trouble. Ironically, it is Simon’s do-gooder instinct that gets him in trouble. If he had merely returned the file to the office as Giles had requested, everything would have been fine; it is because he keeps it that things get complicated.

After the file is introduced, Simon is arrested and each plot point, however mundane, is suffused with a palpable sense of unease. Giles, rotting away in a hospital, thinks the nurses look at him a little strangely. In the Callingtons’ yard, the neighbors’ houses seem unnaturally close, and at school, the teachers seem to be reading Paul’s essays a little too closely—what are they looking for? Dunmore strikes the right notes writing from the perspectives of Paul and his younger sister Sally, both of whom are tasked with taking care of their five-year-old sister, Bridget. They take stock of the crumbling world around them and look for ways to keep it from collapsing altogether. Paul and Sally tell Bridget that their father is on a ship, meanwhile sneaking newspapers and concocting various schemes to extract information from their mother. They compare their plight to The Railway Children, a popular 1905 novel about three children who move to a house near a railroad station after their father is accused of being a spy for the Russians. But they share a painful moment of realization that their lives are not a storybook, and that that the real world is far more dangerous than they once imagined.

Paul, the eldest, goes a bit further, grappling with the larger implications of his father’s situation. He thinks about his mother escaping Nazi Germany and compares it to his own experience, one in which the family must escape their comfortable life in London and move to a distant seaside town. “If Mum and Oma hadn’t left Germany,” he thinks to himself, “they would be dead and he, Sally and Bridget would never have been born. But in England things like that don’t happen. That’s why they have proper trials and the police can’t lock you up just because they feel like it. Or take your home away.”

Dunmore captures the disorienting powerlessness of persecution with a deft hand. The Nazis in Germany and the Soviet regimes in Russia and the Eastern bloc shaped the world in ways it is difficult to quantify. Heda Kovály, the Czech author of the memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968, survived captivity in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz only to be hounded by the Soviets in Czechoslovakia after the war. Her husband, a government official who was also an Auschwitz survivor, was executed after a public show trial. The twin terrors of the twentieth century loomed large in the lives of ordinary people like Kovály. They are the “long shadows of war” that Dunmore referred to in the afterword for The Greatcoat, as quoted by a reviewer for the Guardian. Being Jewish, being gay, or being political—the Admiralty is particularly concerned by Lily’s attendance at a protest for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)—are all cause for fear. Even those who fall within societal norms are not safe from suspicion. As Dunmore writes, the British government was on high alert after busting the Portland spy ring, a coterie of spies in suburban London in the 1950s. Exposure is about how anyone can be made to answer for the fears of their time.

Review Sources

  • Clanchy, Kate. “A Perilous Journey into the Past.” Review of Exposure, by Helen Dunmore. The Guardian, 23 Jan. 2016, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Review of Exposure, by Helen Dunmore. Kirkus, 21 Jan. 2016, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Hamer, Kate. “In from the Cold War: A Couple Confront Personal and Political Treachery.” Review of Exposure, by Helen Dunmore. The New York Times, 27 July 2016, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Powers, Katherine A. “Cold War, WWII Secrets at the Heart of Helen Dunmore’s Exposure.” Review of Exposure, by Helen Dunmore. Chicago Tribune, 30 Mar. 2016, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.
  • Taylor, Catherine. Review of Exposure, by Helen Dunmore. Financial Times, 22 Jan. 2016, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

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