Helen Dunmore Rest in Peace: A Tribute to Exposure

Helen Dunmore died yesterday, and by coincidence Exposure is the novel for our book group today. The New Writing North (http://newwritingnorth.com) book group meets in the first-class waiting room of Berwick railway station and it’s a swell place to meet. There aren’t many trains (only two platforms) or first-class passengers but it feels like a convergence of people coming from all directions to talk books, a true forum, a marketplace of ideas.

I found Dunmore’s writing only last year and am about halfway through my stack of her novels now. Helen Dunmore gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Her books reveal how much of a bitch life is, and the struggle that ordinary mortals have. In particular, what haunted her are the “long shadows of war” that are in our genes.

In Exposure, the people we meet have been formed during World War 2 and by the harshness of English society. Simon Callington is scarred by the bullying of his two elder brothers and then subsequently at boarding school. His mother, a particularly cold and heinous mother, seems unperturbed as his brothers dangle him out of a bedroom window. Giles, whom he meets while at university, is a nurturing father figure—but one who leads him into the secret world of homosexuality and gets him a job at the Admiralty. We know how that’s going to end in post-war Britain, and, sure enough, the ineffectual Simon needs to be rescued by his wife. Simon’s wife, Lily Callington has her secrets too—she came to England as a child of a Jewish refugee during the war and she knows what it is to be hated for being “other.” With the German language buried inside Lily, Dunmore plays with themes of communication as well as secrecy; she gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Lily Callington has buried the German of her childhood that she spoke when she was Lili Brand and was a victim of hatred, but when she needs strength, it returns and her two identities merge.

Dunmore directly quotes from T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, but I also detect Prufrockian traits in the dithering and ineffectuality of both Giles and Simon, whose relationship starts as sexual. Maybe J. Alfred Prufrock was Eliot’s depiction of being closet gay in the time when to come out was to be punished?

Being gay in the 1960’s must have been horrendous. What a cruel society we were. This novel is an indictment of public schools, the sodomy, the bullying, and the class system run by the over-entitled, old school tie network. Kids who were bullied and sent to school at age seven were then probably forced to engage in sodomy by older boys/fags. It became “natural” for them to be used in this way, but then if they have gay relationships at university, they become blackmail fodder. Inevitably, the well educated and connected public school kids all go to work in government and are easy prey for Russian spies. What an abominable system that made homosexuality illegal (punishment by prison or injections of stillbestrol), and wrenched seven year-old boys from home into a warehouse of bullying.

On 23 January 2016, Kate Clanchett wrote a review of Exposure in The Guardian which seems prescient when we look back, given the build up of hatred and prejudice in June 2017. Clanchett, describing the 1960’s, said:

This England suspects people who want a little mild change, as Lily does, who might even be persuaded to go on a peace march one sunny afternoon in Trafalgar Square. It thinks they might be spies, like Guy Burgess or the Portland spy ring. This England thinks cabbage with caraway is suspect and that all Germans, even Jews, are Nazis. It thinks aliens should be sacked from their humble little jobs, turfed out of their homes the way Simon’s brothers once picked Lily from the chair where she was sunbathing, and tossed her, not at all jovially, into a lake.

Pray God we do not go back into the world of the 1960’s; the conditions are ripe as we have the leaders and media who seem determined to control us through fear and hatred of the “other.” The shadows of history and politically drawn maps haunt us still and it’s not the over-entitled and over-privileged classes who will suffer.

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