Helen Dunmore: “Exposure is a novel about what is hidden and about secrets”

Author Helen Dunmore talks about the influences and secrets behind her new book, Exposure

Helen Dunmore

Exposure opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been to before. Trains are a recurring theme, and there are echoes of The Railway Children. What’s the importance of trains and journeys in the novel?

Trains, journeys, and distance are very important to Exposure. In a scene very close to the opening, two characters in particular – Lily and Giles – have a very strong reaction to the sound of a train whistle going through a murky London day in November. For Lily, it brings her a shiver of fear because it brings up a past that she has hidden. And she’s hidden it even from herself but she’s still reacting emotionally, deep, deep within herself she can’t help her feeling of fear and danger. Whereas when Giles hears the train whistle he thinks of escape: ‘I can get away, what’s my getaway, where am I going to go?’ and he’s got it all planned, down to the last journey, exactly what he’ll do if he’s ever caught out. So we see – all through the novel – trains bring danger, and trains bring escape.

You lived in Finland for a while during the Soviet era. Do you think this gave you insight into the Cold War period that you might not otherwise have had?

I do think that the experience of living in Finland during the Cold War era and having the Soviet Union as a neighbour did have quite a large influence on me, and it’s always fascinating to see things from different angles. In Exposure, I’m writing about the Cold War from within Britain, from within London, and from looking Eastward and seeing this barrier, this other Empire, and fear. I’m also very interested in what’s happening on the other side, and so we have characters who are working for and looking at both sides. There are not only double agents in the book but there are also double viewpoints. And to me that gives an excitement and a texture and shows that vision isn’t single; it’s multiple.

What is it about the Cold War period that fascinates you?

I’ve done quite a lot of writing about the Second World War, and about the events which flowed from that war and hardened into the Cold War. In my novel The Betrayal I’ve written about the Cold War from a Soviet perspective and what I’m interested in, in Exposure, is the idea of the establishment – the British establishment – containing people who are within it, and yet not of it – who are double agents, who do not believe they are deeply, deeply embedded within the culture in which they’ve grown up, but they are not loyal to it. The Cold War was a great test of loyalty. I think, as do a lot of people, there was a lot of betrayal, secrecy, questioning and testing of beliefs and who you really were that all feeds into the novel.

Would you say you’ve been shaped by the history you’ve lived through?

Yes, definitely. I felt very confident about writing a novel that opens in November 1960 because although I was only a little girl then, I remember what things felt like, and how they smelt, what the streets looked like, how the fog settled on the city, and the smell of the air. I remembered the kitchens – like Lily’s kitchen – with no modern conveniences at all, the fires, and the atmosphere because I was always a great newspaper reader. I remember the Cuban missile crisis, the Profumo affair – all these enormous public events that affected everybody and were talked about in every household and every school.

Helen Dunmore

History is not the decisions of great men: it’s the acts of countless thousands and millions of individuals that make up history

You tell the story of great events like the Cold War with intimate portraits of individuals who are living through them. What appeals to you about writing history in this way?

In Exposure, as in some other novels I’ve written, I’m writing about history, but in a very particular way. I’m not choosing the perspective of those who imagine they’re in control. I’m choosing the perspective of people who are worked upon by history, whose lives are changed irrevocably – shattered, sometimes – by huge historical events. But at the same time I’m suggesting that characters such as Lily, are not regarded by the great and the good as being important, but by their actions they change history. A lot of people would dismiss Lily, particularly in 1960 as being a wife and mother, a part-time teacher, not a very significant person. She turns out to be able to act in a way that almost no other character acts. What she hides stays hidden. When she acts, she acts with decision – an almost-ruthless decision, which is quite extraordinary. In some ways I realise when I came to finish the novel, the best spy of all is Lily. Though it’s ironic and paradoxical my theory is that history is not the decisions of great men: it’s the acts of countless thousands and millions of individuals that make up history.

There’s much being hidden in the novel, both on a state level and at a personal level. Do you think in 1960 there was a sense that much was being hidden from the country and from each other?

Exposure is a novel about what is hidden and about secrets, and it’s not only about the public secrets, about the transfer of information from one hand to another. It’s also about what everyone keeps hidden in their private life, and often we keep these things hidden even from ourselves. We don’t disclose them; we don’t let ourselves know what we know. But as the reader enters Exposure, the reader is in a privileged position and able to know everything –all the secrets, and in the end will be able to put them all together. A lot of the time the characters are in the dark, and they are trying to find their way in often a very terrifying darkness, moving without clues, bumping up against shadows. And another question to contemplate is if you do tell your secrets –or some of your secrets, will they be as dangerous as you imagine? Can there be some secrets that are better to release and let go? 

Lily is initially quite a withholding character. What do you think about her childhood experience makes her this way?

Lily is quite a reserved character and indeed her closest friend Erica would love Lily to be more open. But Lily has learnt from her earliest days that it’s safer not to. ‘You have to hide, Lily, we’re in England now, don’t speak German. Change the way you spell your name, hide your identity.’ And Lily has learnt to do that very successfully. She’s adopted a persona, and I think she is reserved even from Simon, and that reserve causes difficulties too. In some ways it’s a good quality, it makes her very effective in protecting her family in a time of great danger – she acts, she doesn’t speak. But it also leaves her locked up in the loneliness of her own secrets. And Lily changes throughout the novel too, a lot of things happen to Lily, and she is not the same person at the end of Exposure as she is at the beginning.

Finally, in your novels you always create a very tangible atmosphere. What is the atmosphere of Exposure?

Every novel perhaps has its climate, and the climate of Exposure is those streets glistening with damp, the fog, the dark shadows, a lamppost where there might be a figure just detaching itself, or there might not be. It’s an echo-y landscape, the days are short and the nights are long. And there’s a smell in the air, there’s a smoggy, smoky smell. Everything is hidden and it only very glimpsingly comes into the light. So the novel has its own atmosphere and perhaps, for me when I was writing it, that was one of the first things I thought about, the weather of the novel.

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