Exposure – Helen Dunmore

It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know.

November, 1960. Lily Callington, a school teacher in her thirties with three children of her own – Paul, ten; Sally, almost nine, and Bridget, five – hears a train whistle from her home in Muswell Hill and a momentary fear passes through her.

Giles Holloway, 50, works for the Admiralty, a cover for his work for the secret service. Giles has been drinking too much, spending time in the Nightshade (from where he sometimes brings young men back to his flat), and taking files home. He’s been warned to be more discreet.


As the novel begins, Giles falls down the attic stairs in his apartment hitting his head and his knee. On admission to hospital he’s diagnosed with concussion and his leg needs to be operated on. All he’s concerned about, however, is the file he left on his desk in his attic.

He telephones Simon Callington, Lily’s husband, to collect his keys, retrieve the file and return it. Simon’s unhappy about making a journey across London at night, Lily more so, but Giles got Simon his job due to a connection that goes back years so Simon relents.

Giles has just asked Simon for rather a lot. When he retrieves the file, Simon shoves it into a briefcase which he discovers later also contains a roll of film. Simon realises he can’t return a file which neither he nor Giles should’ve had access to.

Simon Callington. Look where he is now. All this has come about through his own fault, through not seeing what he ought to have seen, not asking the questions he ought to have asked, refusing to recognise what was right in front of him. That Giles, his old friend Giles – But now, at ten to midnight, with the cartridge melting to nothing in the stove, he might as well call a spade a spade. Giles had been batting for the other side in more ways than one.

Before long, Simon’s arrested under the Official Secrets Act and his and Lily’s life takes a turn neither of them expected.

Dunmore weaves a tight, sophisticated and plausible web showing how easily the case against Simon is constructed. Present day sections are juxtaposed with scenes from Simon’s university days and the time he spent with Giles and a slighter overview of Lily’s childhood. Elements of Simon and Giles’ behaviour raises questions of betrayal. What constitutes a betrayal? Of the state? Of a lover? Of family? What might the consequences of those betrayals be? And how do they affect the loyalty of those who’ve been betrayed? Dunmore reveals complex answers to these questions, ones that seem to be true or realistic, highlighting something at the heart of all her novels: and understanding of the psychologically complex behaviour of human beings.

While the initial action centres on the two men, Simon’s arrest shifts the focus to Lily. She’s already proved herself to be quick thinking but goes on to show resilience in the face of adversity, planning how best to provide for their children and to protect them from any danger which might arise. The breath-taking climax of the novel quite rightly belongs to her.
Exposure is a taut, gripping novel. It contains many elements familiar to Dunmore’s work – homosexuality, the balance of relationships, exile, a cottage by the sea – that will please her regular readers but it’s also an excellent place to begin if you’ve never read her before.


Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

10 thoughts on “Exposure – Helen Dunmore

  1. I just finished this five minutes ago. Really enjoyed it. It seemed to me to be The Railway Children, but 50 years later and from more people’s point of view than just the children’s: husband is thrown in gaol for spying, family decamp to the country. There’s even a friendly old gentleman.


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