It’s interesting how over the last several years British fiction has started to change, how certain genres have started to feature more ‘alternative’ versions of Britain, ones where the government has become corrupt, health services are hard to access, and people’s rights have been clamped down on. As things continue to change in the UK and we slide further into fascism, these stories begin to seem less and less ‘alternative’ and more predicting the future (at the time of writing it had just been announced that the Home Office are trying to write into law the ability to strip people of their British citizenship whenever they want).
Exposure is one of these books, set in a UK where the National Health Service is a thing of the past, and huge corporations control people’s access to life saving care and important operations. Apart from this, the book doesn’t seem too far removed from our reality; and I’m sure as with other works that become more realistic with each passing day Exposure might not seem too imaginative in its depiction of Britain for very long.
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The story follows Petra Orff, a woman who has lived in Britain since her university days, but is originally from South Africa. Feeling in many ways still an immigrant to the country, Petra does her best to fit in and to avoid drawing attention to the fact that she’s not from Britain; even going so far as being careful about the words that she uses when talking, and trying to keep her often loud mother from engaging with people she thinks might not take to immigrants. Her life is altered one day when a man literally falls out of the sky at her feet.
This is how she meets Vincent Rice, a second generation Black British man with Malawi and Jamaican family, who’s having to dismantle his recently deceased grandfather’s recording studio in order sell it on. The two of them hit it off, though somewhat awkwardly, and after having dinner together Vincent invites Petra to join him at a show. A world famous art troupe called Metamuse have decided to have their latest season of shows in quiet little Leamington Spa; something that seems strange in itself. Stranger still, however, is that Vincent won the tickets in a competition he doesn’t even remember entering.
Attending the first show, Vincent and Petra form a quick relationship, and become swept up in each other. But when they attend the second show things begin to go wrong; the show leaves them feeling disturbed, and Petra begins to experience strange things in her regular life. Convinced that there’s something sinister going on with Metamuse, and that it could be putting her and Vincent in danger, Petra becomes determined to get to the bottom of things.
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One of the things that I really liked about Exposure was how for the longest time I wasn’t really sure what genre is was going to fit into. Obviously there are some romance elements thanks to the relationship between Petra and Vincent being a central focus, as well as the mystery elements when Petra begins her investigation into Metamuse, but it was clear that there was something else going on too, some kind of strange series of events that was altering Petra’s perception of the world. There are moments throughout the book where she sees disturbing images in people’s faces; where the sun hits them just right, or she catches their reflections, she sees monsters in place of people. There are also moments where she seems to have no memory of people that she’s supposed to know, or remembers people clearly that others have no memory of.
These strange moments, these odd happenings that begin to make you question the reality around Petra could be chalked up to someone dealing with a lot of emotional distress, whose mind might be having difficulty processing things; but it felt like it was more than that, and as such my mind started to come up with theories. Whilst I was completely off in what I was expecting things to be, there is something in this book that explains everything, that will have you going ‘of course it was that’, and might even leave you wanting to go back and reread the entire thing now knowing this revelation, so that you can experience the story in a whole new way.
The characters of Exposure are interesting too, especially the central duo. Petra is a strange mixture of unsure of herself, always wanting to be careful and not rock the boat, but also really headstrong and impulsive. There are times where she seems to want to just go with the flow and almost dissapears into the background, whilst others she’s confrontational and brash. There are times where these traits can be good, but often she seems to choose to be the wrong thing in the wrong moment, and often causes herself to be her own worst enemy. But one thing about her I really liked was how passionate and caring she is. Especially towards Vincent, a man she’s just met and hardly knows anything about, yet is willing to put herself in danger for.
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Vincent is a little more complex than Petra, mostly because we don’t spend as much time with him, and he plays his cards much closer to his chest. For a lot of the book we don’t know much about him, and it’s clear that he’s keeping big parts of his life secret from Petra, dodging her questions and avoiding certain subjects. But on the whole he seems to be a decent man, though perhaps one who has lost his focus in life; though when you learn more about his history this becomes a lot more understandable.
Exposure is an interesting and twisting narrative filled with mystery, one that gets you thinking and will keep you reading long after you should probably have put the book down to take a break. It’s got some complex and flawed characters who feel like real people, and you genuinely want to see them do well and get through the events unscathed; though it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a story where that’s guaranteed. Perfect for fans of fiction like Black Mirror, this is a book that will stick with you after it’s done.
Exposure is out now from Titan Books.