Helen Dunmore: Exposure


Exposure opens in the mind of someone, we don’t know whether a man or a woman, travelling on a train towards “home, though I’ve never seen the place before”. The person has been in prison, we learn, though we don’t know why or for how long. Reference is made to a former lover, Giles, and to “Lily and the children”. It’s the only chapter in the book written from this entirely first-person point of view and it’s a masterly opening into a book full of suspense, secrecy and reserve. Two themes are introduced that resonate on many levels throughout the book: the idea of home, and the idea of being known and embraced.

There was nothing Giles didn’t know about me. Nothing in me that he couldn’t touch.(3)

Being known so intimately, allowing yourself to be so unguarded, has its perils as well as its comforts. Simon Callington is betrayed by his former lover and framed for Giles’ own crime. His wife, Lily, who fled Hitler’s Germany as a child with her Jewish mother, learned very early on to be on her guard. She knows all too well that the life you think is safe and reliable can fall to pieces around you, and that society runs by subterranean rules that take no account of the individual:

To go home was to be entirely safe. There was the thick outer door, the lobby, the entrance hall, the lift with its gates that folded up like concertinas, the row of letter-boxes with their polished brass nameplates. Lili traced their own name with her finger before she could read. She was allowed to go down all by herself to fetch the post, and up again three floors in the wheezing hush of the lift. Their own front door was made of oak, her father said. There were three locks, one at the top, one in the middle, one at the bottom. One day, when Lili and her mother came home, Mama took out a key Lili had never seen her use before. She reached up and turned the key in the top lock, and then she bent down to the very bottom, almost on the floor, and turned that lock too. From that time, if Lili came home and one of her parents was already inside the apartment, she had to wait while all three locks were opened. Soon after that, when she was on her way home from school, she heard it for the first time. ‘Dirty little Jew’. She turned. But it was a nice lady in a summer dress with yellow and purple pansies on it. She looked straight at Lili. Had she said those words? She looked like one of Mama’s friends. In fact Lili was certain that she recognised the face.  A neighbour perhaps. But the lady’s face was cold. She twitched her eyebrows and turned away. Her skirt swished from side to side as she walked off down the pavement in her high heels.

Lili went home. She felt hot and ashamed, as if she’d wet herself, and there was a patch on her skirt. When she rang the doorbell she waited fro the sound of the three locks being turned, one by one. Once she was inside, she said nothing about the lady. (120)

I’ve quoted this passage at length not only because it captures the novel’s themes so well but it shows Dunmore’s great skills of pacing and close observation. Moving through this passage, seen through Lili’s eyes, we move with her from innocence to knowledge. In one second every changes, and everything that was vaguely ominous solidifies into understanding. It is a completely different Lili who comes into the flat, into an unspoken complicity with her mother.

Lily’s husband Simon is the misfit in a wealthy, soulless family. He hates his mother so much that as a child he used to wonder how he could kill her and not be found out. It’s a miracle that he has found Lily, and she him. Before her, there was only the relationship with Giles. Even though this is no longer sexual, he’s bound to Giles in a way Lily cannot understand. That’s why, when Giles rings him late at night and asks him to retrieve a Top Secret file from his home and return it unnoticed to the Home Office where they both work, Simon goes at least as far as getting the file. After that it all gets horribly messy.

Many people in the novel fear “exposure”: Giles, of course, selling secrets to the Russians, and his even more corrupt senior Julian Clowde; Simon, accused of spying and unwilling to tell the truth about Giles or to get Lily involved; Lily, facing the public shame of being the wife of a spy (the fact that she is German and has attended a CND rally makes her, in the eyes of the security forces, an obvious traitor); Simon again, fearful that Giles will tell Lily about their affair many years ago. But for Simon, Giles and Lily, the exposure that happens over the course of the novel is an internal one. In Lily’s case in particular you think of the word as it’s used in photography: she emerges from the shadows, becomes clearer and sharper in the seawinds of the Kentish coast where she and the children move.

I had to ration my reading: the suspense of Simon’s predicament made me want to hurry on to find out what happened, but I didn’t want to miss any of the pleasure of Dunmore’s writing or the subtle revelation of character that’s the achievement of the book. She has a perfect ear for just how far to go, and when.

Immensely enjoyable and satisfying.




10 thoughts on “Helen Dunmore: Exposure

  1. This sounds really interesting on several different levels – the themes, the characters and the atmosphere. I’ve never read Dunmore, but this could be the one to tempt me. Would it suit a book group, do you think?

    1. Worth your while ,Jacqui. If it’s a book club that’s into very close reading, yes, but that’s not any book club I’ve ever belonged to.There are lots of books with suspense and good characterisation, but this one is unusual I think in the level of literary skill as demonstrated above. .

  2. Gert, I thoroughly agree that this is a very well written book and is seamless in its ability to move back and forth with time and characters and you are moving with them.
    I also thought that you really knew the characters and were able to feel with them not in a voyeuristic way but personally.

    1. So glad you liked this one. Do you feel inclined to try more of hers? There seems to be quite a variety of topics and settings. She also writes children’s books, a friend tells me.

  3. I love Helen Dunmore’s writing and this is a wonderful book. as well enjoying the detail that Gert describes i really missed the characters after i had finished it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s