Tag Archives: The Lie

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore: Shines out like a beacon

Cover imageWhen 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.