I found this to be an unbelievably poignant novel. In The Lie, Daniel Branwell has returned home to Cornwall from The Great War. The stories of his childhood, his war, and his return are interwoven seamlessly. It is also the story of all the lost men who returned from fighting in 1918 and didn’t know where to go or what to do. They faced their futures alone, unsure if they were mad, if their memories of war were correct or whether they were strong enough to resist the memories of carnage. Dan’s life unfolds like a thriller, with mysteries and suspicions, so that I turned the pages looking for answers and before I knew it I had reached the end.
Dunmore is an accomplished novelist who handles her emotionally explosive subject with sure hands, juxtaposing the daily reality of post-war Cornwall with Dan’s memories, perhaps true, perhaps confused, of battle. Truth is the unknown. The war is in every move Dan makes, every thought, every dream. Needing food, he digs the earth to plant vegetables but cannot escape the battlefield: “It was the smell of earth. Not clean earth, turned up by spade or the fork, to be sunned and watered. This earth had nothing to do with growth. It was raw and slimy, blown apart in great clods, churned to greasy, liquid mud that sucked down men or horses. It was earth that should have stayed deep and hidden, but was exposed in all its filth, corrosive, eating away at the bodies that had to live in it. It breathed into me from its wet mouth.”
Soil is an important presence throughout the book. Dan is a gardener, a skill he soon finds on joining the army will not exempt him from fighting as it does the blacksmiths, chefs and mechanics. “Skilled men had their hands full, and weren’t likely to find themselves in the fire-trench. But there wasn’t any call for a gardener. You’d be marched through a village which had been knocked to bits by shelling, and all there’d be left of a hundred gardens was a bit of green straggling out of a gash in a wall.” Instead, Dan digs. Fields don’t look the same as the fields in Cornwall. “Once you got near the line, there wasn’t much you could recognise as a field, any more than the woods were woods. It was all a jumble.”
His childhood in Cornwall with his best friend Frederick, and Frederick’s sister Felicia, resonates throughout the book. Their differences – poor boy and rich boy, the squaddie and the officer – are at the centre of the book. Dan visits their large house with its library full of shiny red-leather bound volumes, smuggling out one book at a time up his jumper. He reads and memorizes: “I hoarded new words and brought them out like coins.” Frederick, who is sent to private school, has no mind for books and envies Dan’s photographic memory. But when war comes, Frederick is sent to officer school and Dan to basic camp.
In Belgium, before the night-time trench raid which changes their lives, Frederick asks Dan to recite a poem. The prospects of the two men are so fragile that the juxtaposition of war and the poem by Matthew Arnold cannot help but be moving:
“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
When Dan returns to Cornwall he has nowhere to go. As he struggles to survive, shunning company, preferring solitude, he meets Felicia again. The memories come flooding back and he struggles to repel them.
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore [Hutchinson, published in the UK January 16, 2014]
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