In many respects Helen Dunmore’s novel Exposure is a book of contradictions. Stylistically, it is plot driven, enticing the reader on page by page as the story of Simon and Lily Callington unfolds during what, for them, turns out to be the catastrophic year of 1960. And yet as readers we are not racing through the book in order to discover what the dénouement is going to be, for the very first thing that Dunmore actually tells us is how the story ends. And, if we have by chance missed the reveal of the prologue, then never mind, we should also be able to predict where the tale is going simply by drawing an analogy, because it will soon become clear to almost every reader that Exposure is in fact a chilling retelling of E Nesbit’s classic, The Railway Children. Simon Callington, (innocent at least of anything to do with espionage) is, like Father in the earlier novel, wrongly accused of being a spy and as a result his wife, Lily, and their three children are forced to move out of their London house and set up home in a small village on the Kent coast where they pretty much live from hand to mouth. Parallels between the two works abound, there is a similar episode to that where Nesbit’s Peter steals the coal and even a mysterious old man who gets off the London train and is instrumental in bringing the story to its climax.
However, while the plot line follows Nesbit’s story, other narrative elements do not. The change in temporal setting means that instead of taking place in the reasonably bucolic atmosphere of Edwardian England, Simon’s arrest is foregrounded against a climate of post war austerity, suspicion of all foreigners and memories of Burgess and Maclean. The arrests of the Portland spy ring during the course of the novel serves to heighten further the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. More important, perhaps, is the change of narrative point of view, because instead of seeing events through the children’s eyes in this novel we walk hand in hand with the adults and most especially with Simon’s German Jewish wife, Lily.
Lili Brandt is brought to England by her mother in 1938 and mother and daughter set about erasing everything that might mark them as standing out from the community in which they now live, including their first language, German. When, as an adult Lily seeks work as a language teacher, it is French and Italian that she offers, insisting that she has no knowledge of what is, in fact, her mother tongue. But, there are some things that Lily can not obliterate, and that includes her knowledge of how to survive when the authorities are set against you. It is in the detailed descriptions as to how she goes about packing up her comfortable Muswell Hill home and then teaching the children to make do and mend in what is little more than a seaside hovel, that Dunmore’s writing is at its best. In just a few words she recreates what life was like in the early sixties. In many respects reading those passages was like walking through my own childhood.
There is more going on here, however, than a simple retelling of a children’s story. Dunmore is also exploring our propensity for looking at the world and seeing only what we want to see. The novel’s opening words set us up for this.
It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know…It turns out that I know everything. All the facts were in my head and always had been. I ignored them, because it was easier.
For the greater part of the novel it appears that this is meant to apply to Simon’s ‘refusal’ to recognise that his colleague and friend from university days, Giles, is spying for a foreign power. And, indeed that is an important concern which Dunmore thoroughly explores. However, once again the reader is ultimately faced with something of a contradiction because the really important lesson that the characters have to come to understand is that it is not what you allow yourself to know about others that matters, but what you allow yourself to know, to recognise, about yourself. There are facts about Simon’s past which he has chosen to push so far down into his subconscious that he no longer acknowledges their existence, but it is those very facts which propel his actions and which ultimately lead to his arrest. Likewise Lily has to realise that she is still Lili, that she does speak and understand German and that she must allow the dam to break and all the stream and fountain of language that is within her to pour out if she and Simon are to be able to rebuild their lives as a family after their initial trauma is over.
I chose Exposure for this month’s book group with some trepidation. I read it myself as soon as it was published, partly because it was by Helen Dunmore and I expect to enjoy her work, but mainly because having read a review of the novel it became apparent that its subject matter touched me in a very particular way. Several decades ago something very similar happened to a friend of mine. A member of her family was accused of spying for the Russians, only in this real life case the accusations were true. This meant that I saw at first hand what such a revelation did to her family who, at the same time as they were dealing with what felt like a very personal betrayal, were also besieged by the press and denounced by neighbours just as happens to the Callingtons. Selecting the novel for discussion I did wonder if I was too close to its subject matter to be able to be a good judge of its merits as literature. However, the entire group was in agreement that this is an exceptional piece of writing and one which stays with you long after you have turned the final page.