Helen Dunmore had me from the beginning of the first chapter;
“What could be safer than a primary school in Muswell Hill?” questions mother of three Lily. Well, as an ex-headteacher of a primary school in Muswell Hill I could certainly send her quite a list but the author had certainly grabbed my attention early on with this, her fourteenth novel.
I’ve read one of these before, “House Of Orphans” (2006) which was set in early twentieth century Finland. I thought it had a very good first half but it fell apart for me towards the end, providing an enjoyable reading experience but it was not a book I loved nor did it have me rushing to read more. Dunmore’s reputation has continued to grow and for the last few years I have suspected that I’ve been missing out on a major talent. There’s enough evidence with her latest to suggest that this is the case. This was, for me, a considerably more impressive novel.
Set in an England in 1960 still paranoid over high-profile Cold War spy cases such as Burgess and Maclean the effects of this paranoia on a family is effectively conveyed. Ex-Cambridge student Simon Callington is working for the Admiralty when one evening he receives a phonecall from a colleague who has been hospitalised after a drunken fall. The colleague, Giles, with whom, we discover, Simon has a history, has taken home a secret file and he asks Simon to collect it and return to the office. This begins a chain of events which makes for gripping reading.
With Giles in his hospital bed and the evidence building against Simon the focus shifts to Simon’s wife Lily who has to manage the day to day things, such as survival and bringing up the children in straitened circumstances and away from the prying of the press. It’s very much a story about attempting to maintain a semblance of normality under extraordinary conditions. Lily knows about reinvention, a German Jewish refugee who escaped to England with her mother as a child, she has hidden her German roots but these inevitably come back amongst the waves of suspicion against her and her family.
Plot-wise it is simple but it works so well because of its introspection which has the characters focusing on the smaller details while big things are happening and yet alongside that it works like a thriller with tension building up. Despite the simplicity there is a richness and a depth that I loved. On more than a few occasions it reminded me of a more modern adult “Railway Children”. If this was intentional it is a clever nod to the children’s classic with its echoes of train whistles and a family adapting to life without father. Helen Dunmore is also an award-winning poet and her feel for language is present throughout. I really enjoyed this and the race for my reviewsrevues best read of 2017 starts here.
“Exposure” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books. Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Helen Dunmore. You have until 10th February to register your vote.
“Exposure” was published in paperback by Windmill Books in August 2016