Where The Trip Takes Us……… Exposure by Helen Dunmore

‘A journey is a person in itself: no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle we do not take a trip: a trip takes us.’ John Steinbeck

There probably aren’t many variations on Cold War spy stories left but in the last couple of years I’ve read a few with female protagonists to the fore – some really successful ( the brilliant ‘Red Joan’ by Jenny Rooney!) and some less so ( the very dull ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan). This new book from Helen Dunmore takes a slightly different angle to the female protagonist, this time it’s the wife of the suspected spy, and the result is a book that’s not as good as ‘Red Joan’ but is better than ‘Sweet Tooth’!!!!!

Lily and Simon Callington are just like any other young family of the 60’s where they have ambitions to move onward and upward to a better future for them and their children. But they also have one foot a little too firmly planted in their past and it’s a past that will ultimately come back to haunt them.

The journey through their lives starts with a literal journey – a man is on a train returning home to his family and yet it’s a home he’s not set eyes on before. In that space between wide awake and deep sleep, he half-dreams, half remembers an incident from his childhood where his older brothers hang him by his ankles from the family bedroom window and he wakes confused and frightened, until he remembers who he is and where he’s going.

And though the Callingtons are a family who largely know where they are going, that clever prologue paints their lives in a very different hue because from the start, while you don’t know exactly know where they are going, what you do know is it isn’t going to be where they think it is.

They live a life of domestic ordinariness and there’s a comforting familiarity and a sort of beauty in their struggles whether it’s Simon wanting more time with his kids than his work, Lily saving for things for their home, their son Peter readying for grammar school entrance tests or refereeing sibling tensions! But their struggles change quickly because of Simons past and his links to an old friend and colleague at work, Giles Holloway. For Giles is a spy passing Admiralty documents, photographs and information to the Russians. He’s also an alcoholic and having removed a file to photograph at home, he falls down stairs in his flat breaking his leg and kneecap and leaving the file horribly exposed in his attic eyrie while he’s hospitalised. Somebody needs to clean up his mess and so he turns to colleague and old friend Simon – not because Simon’s a spy himself but because Giles can trust him to put the file back without looking at it and with no questions asked. But Simon does look.

'It starts with the whistle of a train, shearing through the cold, thick dusk of a November afternoon.

Lily Callington hears it as she digs over her vegetable patch at the bottom of her garden in Muswell Hill. For a second she's startled, because the whistle sounds so close, as if a train is rushing towards her along the disused railway line at the bottom of the garden.'

This is an England barely recovered from the war, where the fear of Hitler has been replaced by the fear of Stalin.  A paranoia grips the establishment and Simons arrest brings the family into the eye of a storm. And it’s a paranoia that’s not restricted to the establishment. In the wake of Burgess and McLean, who are mentioned in the book, there’s a press pack which sees a red under pretty much every bed and there’s staff at the school where Lily teaches where the only thing narrower than their eyes is the their minds! Yet these might be conquerable were it not for the fact that Lily has a past too and it shapes her future just as Simon’s does. For Lily, fleeing 1930’s Nazi Germany for England as a child has given her an additional layer of shame to add to those from Simons arrest. For these are memories that claw at her ankles and shroud the resilient and determined person that she is inside.

The thriller part of Exposure is more of a ‘whydunnit’ than a ‘whodunnit’ so the focus is on Simon’s past, the nature of his connection to Giles and the reasons for him acting as he has. This isn’t a book of archetypal spy stories with knife-edge cliff hangers, good guy v bad guy chases, or skulking in shadows, and yet the spy characters feel like they’ve been constructed by rent-a-spy, all ‘old boy’, moustaches and gentlemen’s clubs.

What Other Bloggers Had To Say About Exposure…..

………’While Simon is an interesting figure, it’s Lily who holds our attention with her resilience and determination to protect her family and stay loyal to her husband’



At its heart Exposure is a story about a family, the relationships between them and how they are affected by the decisions which they make. The minutiae of family life is really well done in this book. The characters of Lily and the children are strong and the ways in which they change to meet the turbulent circumstances are believable and real. Paul and his sisters reactions in particular are exceptionally well done but by far the strongest character is Lily herself. Her loyalty to Simon isn’t blind or unconsidered and her fierce determination to fight to keep her family together make her a heroine in the least conventional of senses. Sometimes her passivity and inclination to avoid the more public consequences of Simon’s predicament rather than fight them head on can be frustrating, but her life lessons from her childhood about fitting in, appearing to be like everyone else, and trying to avoid the world at large seeing who you really are shadows across her future in similar ways to Simon’s past shadows his with such catastrophic consequences.

There’s no doubt that Helen Dunmore can write, though my experience of reading Exposure, and previously The Greatcoat and The Lie, still leave a doubt in my mind about whether or not her storytelling ability is on a par with that technical skill. Nevertheless, this is a really enjoyable book, with a strong female character at its core and a great supporting cast in her children. The different journeys in the book might be a bit hit and miss, but where they work well, as they do with the family, they are well worth reading, even though the journeys in themselves are really more engaging and impressive than the final destination.


Lily is so crucial to the story. She possesses a quiet bravery and a steely nerve born of surviving the terror of her youth

The Independent

As its first scene promises, it is a dream-like book, but not exactly a reverie: more like one of those visceral dreams bobbing with household object

The Guardian

Espionage seems to be the subject of Helen Dunmore’s new novel, but that’s just sleight of hand to get your attention

The Scotsman

Book Rating - 8

Exposure by Helen Dunmore was published by Hutchinson for Random House. I bought my copy with my own hard earned cash

You can find out a little more about Helen Dunmore’s books at her website and you can hear Helen Dunmore talking about Exposure here at the truly wonderfully named Radio Gorgeous