Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite modern authors, while she won the Orange Prize in 1996 for ‘A Spell of Winter’ she frequently appears not to get the attention that her wonderful, carefully crafted prose deserves.
‘Exposure’ received generally good reviews at the start of 2016, but in the normal run of events it would not have been a novel I would have not read yet, the paper-back and paper-back priced, electronic editions are not yet out. But I stumbled across it at the fantastic Blackheath and Greenwich Amnesty International second-hand book fair – held biannually in June and November.
The plot treads familiar ground, both in terms of the Dunmore returning to issues of the Cold War but a pioneering children’s novel that most will be familiar with, even if only via the film version, Edith Nesbit’s Railway Children. By a pleasant co-incidence Nesbit lived for a while about 100 metres further north along Dartmouth Grove from where the novel was purchased.
The setting isn’t the Edwardian England of Nesbit but a London of 50 years later – a London that, despite the proclamation of Macmillan that Britons had ‘never had it so good’ in 1957, seemed to still be suffering from some of the privations of the early post war years and was ‘home’ to CND demonstrations as the post-war powers began a nuclear arms build-up. The gloomy autumnal setting added to the rather melancholy feel to the Dunmore’s London.
Unlike the ‘Railway Children’, while some of the tale is told through the eyes of the three children, the narrative is through is generally through the perspectives of all the main adult characters. As was the case in both ‘The Siege’ and ‘The Betrayal’ there is a real depth and warmth to main female character, Lily, the German Jewish émigré wife of the falsely accused Simon Callington. Dunmore fills Lilly’s life with a vast array of period household detail – much of it probably gleaned from her own upbringing.
Dunmore deftly flits from the 1950s to earlier decades, from character to character, and delightfully evokes both the detail of Muswell Hill as well as the isolated cottage on the coastal fringes of the former Kent coalfield. The twists and turn of the complex plot is subtly underplayed as she creates an excellent novel – it is so, so much more than the adult pastiche of the Edwardian children’s story it could have easily become.