The Lie

By HELEN DUNMORE

A quote from Rudyard Kipling sets the bleakly poetic tone for Helen Dunmore’s latest novel of war: “And if any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” The mass slaughter of the First World War is indeed the crime at the core of Dunmore’s The Lie. But a smaller transgression, far closer to home, provides the novel’s earliest shock. “I dug her a decent grave and lined it with dry brown bracken and branches of the rosemary bush that grew close to her door,” the narrator reports. “The smell of her was bad when I lifted her, like a bird you find crawling with lice and maggots after it has gone away to die in the foot of a hedge…. I told no one about Mary Pascoe’s death.”

Much later, in a final scene charged with mythic significance, Daniel Branwell will be punished not only for this illicit act (“I can see all their faces within a couple of seconds, as bright as if the flare had lit them. I am trapped. They’ve got me”) but also, perhaps, for the larger offense of returning from war. He is, after all, the embodiment of a horror that others cannot imagine and that he cannot forget. “A memory like mine is more a curse than a blessing,” Daniel admits. “It cuts into the past, as sharp as a knife, and serves it up glistening.”

Helen Dunmore’s fiction slices just as keenly through history. In The Siege and The Betrayal, for example, she memorably depicts wartime and postwar Russia, while in novels such as The Greatcoat and now The Lie she conjures up the lives of Britain’s walking wounded. “I can smell the mud,” Daniel Branwell says, “You never forget the reek of it. Thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime.” In 1920, Daniel has returned from the French battlefield to Cornwall, where he grew up poor, the son of a servant. Living rough at first on neighbor Mary Pascoe’s land and later in her cottage, he is haunted by the war — rendered in vivid flashbacks — and by visions of a dead comrade. Frederick Dennis, the son of the family that employed Daniel’s mother, was a childhood friend, and more. Inseparable as boys, the two men face death together in scenes that, to Dunmore’s credit, never soar but rather churn in blood and filth.  

Yet The Lie, for all its horrors, is a quiet novel vibrating with suspense and unease. Here a simple act is never simple. An unexpected visit by the local doctor, for example, raises the tension to breaking point. “I reach behind me, get hold of the door handle, and pull it to as I step out,” Daniel reports, “…Sweat trickles inside my armpits and my heart is banging. I stand sideways so that he had to face into the sun and squint.” As the outside world encroaches on Daniel’s fragile solitude, threatening to expose his guilty secret, his grip on the ghost-filled present slips even further. “There’s almost nothing I want to see,” he declares towards the end, “except these fields. Even then, it’s not a warm feeling. I’m like the boy in the story, who had a splinter of ice in his heart.”

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