When I was asked by the lovely people at We Love This Book to nominate the book I was most looking forward to in 2014 it gave me an excellent excuse to wade through publishers’ catalogues checking out their forthcoming goodies. Tempting as many of them were, the new Helen Dunmore shone out like a beacon. I have long been a fan of Dunmore’s writing. She’s only put one foot wrong for me – Counting the Stars which felt like something of an aberration – but The Lie more than makes up for that.
Daniel has come home from the war, unscathed in body but not in mind. Living in a makeshift shelter on Mary Pascoe’s smallholding, he nurses her through her final illness, burying her as she wished on her own land rather than in the churchyard, taking over the smallholding and running it as she wanted him to, all the while keeping himself to himself and telling no one of her death. Threaded through Daniel’s narrative are vivid memories of his boyhood friendship with Frederick, the son of his mother’s employer, and nightmarish scenes from the battlefield, each occasionally overlaying the other. His nights, and sometimes his days, are disturbed by Frederick’s visits, ‘clagged in mud from head to foot’. When he meets Frederick’s sister Felicia, nineteen, war-widowed and mother to Jeannie, a bond begins to form forged out of loneliness, memory and an aching absence. Daniel’s continued pretence that Mary is still confined to her bed eventually arouses suspicion. Tongues begin to wag.
Daniel returns to a Cornwall unchanged from the place he grew up in, and yet everything has changed. Resentments of those who escaped the horror are inevitable. He is not the boy he was when he left: quick to suspect, easily angered. The Lie’s overarching theme is the appalling psychological and emotional costs of war but it’s also a novel about class. Daniel’s mother was widowed when she was twenty, barely scraping a living cleaning the houses of the rich. Daniel left school at eleven, a blind eye turned to the law so that he can work. He and Frederick become close friends – blood brothers – but it is Daniel who reads the books in Mr Dennis’ library – previously unread, bought by the yard as decoration – memorising the poems that ‘swarm, crowding me like bees’ in the shell-holes of France. Fiercely intelligent, Daniel longs for an education but his mother cannot afford the grammar school’s fees. When they go to war Frederick becomes an officer, Daniel a private but the love between them endures against all the rules. Daniel is left quite literally haunted by his failure to save Frederick.
Dunmore’s use of language and imagery is breathtaking, shining out in a narrative of spare simplicity: now there are no servants rich people ‘live in their own houses like children, not knowing how things work’; ‘Off she goes, to work her black seam of gossip’ perfectly describes Mrs Quick’s disapproval; departing soldiers see ’England sidle backwards, as if it was trying to escape’ – they have not volunteered: ‘They came to get us. Winkled us out of our shells, raw as we were.’ Recurring motifs conjure unimaginable horrors – bodies, buried but reappearing from shelled graves in a sickening parody of the resurrection; the stink of ‘mud, shit, rotting flesh and cordite’; rats who ’eye us up like chums’. We’re reminded, several times, that many of those at the front were barely out of childhood when Daniel notices that he’s grown out of his old clothes. I could go on but you get my drift. It’s a work of quite extraordinary talent. It’s long been a mystery to me that Dunmore isn’t spoken of in the same terms as McEwan, Amis, Rushdie and Barnes, the male cannon of her generation. For me, she’s better than all of them put together.