I’ve been wanting to read Exposure by Helen Dunmore ever since FictionFan reviewed the story soon after I finished reading Edith Nesbit’s children’s classic, The Railway Children. Exposure is in many ways a retelling of The Railway Children, from the adult’s point of view.
Exposure is set in London during the 1960’s, during the Cold War. Lily and Simon Callington and their three children are living a safe, loving and contented life when Simon’s colleague, Giles Holloway, takes a file marked ‘Most Secret’ home from their office at The Admiralty. Giles falls and breaks his leg before he can return the file so asks Simon, his former lover, to surreptitiously collect and return it before the loss is noticed. Simon visits Giles’ apartment to do this but on checking the contents realises that Giles should never have even read the file in the first place and worse, realises that both Giles and their manager are double agents, selling England’s secrets to the Russians.
Simon is arrested for spying and Lily is left to deal with the fall-out.
Lily is an extraordinarily woman. She came to England as a child, a German Jew who had painstakingly built up a safe haven, but once Simon’s arrest became public knowledge she was forced to resign her teaching position. Unable to pay the mortgage on their home, she arranged to let their home and moved herself and the children to an isolated cottage near a lonely beach. As I watched Lily lose friends, her job and her community and her home, as well as learning why Giles had such a hold over her husband, I was impressed by her ability to manage the changes to her family’s lives without unduly frightening the children, and the way she coped with the danger they were subsequently exposed to. I liked Simon too, but he was a plodder, a well-meaning fellow with a good heart who became embroiled in an affair he should have avoided. Lily had the brains and strength of character in the family, and more than once, I thought she would have been better in Simon’s job than he was.
The children are wonderful characters, too. They are resilient and clever, and take on family responsibilities without being asked in a way that I cannot imagine a child of this day and age in a western country doing. They are worthy relations to the children in The Railway Children.
Trains rumble about the pages of Exposure too, provoking a reaction from whichever character hears it to tell a little bit more of the story. Peter, Simon and Lily’s eldest boy, hears a train whistle and shows his knowledge of trains, timetables and routes in a way that borders on his having an obsession with the subject, while Giles (boo, hiss) hears the train whistle and plans his escape from England and spying charges. The sound of a train reminds Simon of his joy in his family, while for Lily, it is a reminder of her frightening childhood.
I was unable to put Exposure down until I finished the story, well into the night. The story isn’t a thriller, but the threat of danger hung over the characters keeping the hairs on the back of my neck slightly up until I reached the end of the story. I liked the ending too, and am still wondering how the characters are getting on now, several weeks after I’ve finished the book.