Do you remember a story in which three ‘ordinary suburban’ children, having watched their father taken away in unexplained circumstances, find themselves taken to live beside a railway line in the country? Suddenly, instead of trips to the Pantomime and the Zoological Gardens, they have to rely on their own resources, with butter or jam on their bread, never both, and red letter days, when mother’s Editor takes one of her stories and there are buns for tea. I am talking of course of The Railway Children by E Nesbit, which I read for the first time in 1971, the same year I was taken to see the film directed by Lionel Jeffries.
It is impossible to read the book now without hearing the voices of the three children in the film; ‘If mother doesn’t want us to know she’s been crying’ she said to herself as she heard through the dark the catching of her Mother’s breath, ‘we won’t know it. That’s all,’ is pure Jenny Agutter, in all her serious charm, come to life. Roberta knows that their father’s disappearance ‘is something to do with the government’ and supports her mother’s need to believe that it will all come right in the end tirelessly.
The Railway Children was far from my mind when I picked up Exposure by Helen Dunmore. I did so, having been deeply moved by her bestselling novel The Siege years ago, and curious about a writer who moves seamlessly from fiction for adults, to a successful fantasy adventure series for children, to poetry. It is really only now that I have finished and revisited parts of the book that I make the connection. The novel starts with the whistle of a train, as we are introduced to the main protagonists, Lily, and her children Sally, Paul and Bridget, and Giles and his boss Julian,who work at the admiralty. Finally Lily’s husband Simon, who, as a result of a snap decision, finds his cosy domestic world turned on its head. This is the 1950s, the Cold War is at its height, and we have entered a murky world of secrets and lies.
The children, just like the railway children, have to leave their family home, and make a new one in the country, where they spend their time scavenging on the beach for sea coal after school.The novel is steeped in period detail, and each character is drawn with such clarity that I feel I can almost smell and touch them. The fact that we see the story from each of the main characters’ points of view made me race through the book, until suddenly, on nearing the end, I simply wasn’t ready to let go.
This afternoon in a totally different context, (an interview in The Guardian with Sharon Shoesmith) I read the words, ‘…she blithely trusted that reason and fairness would prevail. “I could see that much of what had been said was lies, and I expected that someone else would know that and do something about it”.’ Therein lies the rub: what would you do, if placed in a situation where the truth wasn’t going to come out?
At the end of the Railway children, I weep: not just because of ‘daddy, my daddy’ appearing out of the steam on the station platform, but because of the power of E. Nesbit’s writing, (read the last sentence and you will see what I mean). At the end of Exposure I wept too. I weep because the author has kept the tension up throughout the entire 391 pages, and I really care what is going to happen, I weep because I’m not ready to leave characters I have come to care about and am interested in, and I weep because these circumstances are not just fiction, but for someone, somewhere, real life. To make a reader feel all this is a powerful gift. I am in awe of Helen Dunmore’s perfectly constructed and deeply moving novel.