On the bright, blustery morning when I go to St Ives to meet Helen Dunmore, West Cornwall looks exactly as she described it in her first novel: “The narrow land here is just a snag in the sea’s passage.” I’d left Cornwall for university when I read Zennor in Darkness (1993) and was moved by its descriptions of still summer nights, wind banging against granite walls and the “watching landscape” with its myriad sets of eyes.
This place has its painters, poets and commercial authors, but there’s something uniquely affirming about reading a novelist who writes clearly of where you’re from. In her debut, Dunmore imagined D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda’s experiences near the village of Zennor in 1917. By interweaving the story of a group of local teenagers, she showed that, to those who grow up here, “the narrow land” can feel like the whole world.
Daniel Branwell, the narrator of The Lie, knows only beaches, cobbled streets and moors before the First World War transports him to its bloody battlefields and rat-infested trenches. “It’s ironic and tragic that the first mass experience of travel for ordinary people was war,” says Dunmore, after I reach her house at the top of St Ives’s steepest hill. “Daniel hadn’t been outside Cornwall until he was conscripted and in that he’s like many young men of his background. When he comes back, he’s only 20 but he feels old because he’s traumatised. His parents are dead and his war experiences make him an outsider in his home town. He’s wondering: ‘Can I stitch together a life?’.”
The Lie also describes Daniel’s pre-war childhood with his privileged friends, Frederick Dennis and his sister Felicia, whom Daniel met when his mother was their father’s housekeeper. Eventually, all of their lives are transformed by war and Felicia is left to raise a baby alone after her young husband perishes in battle. Daniel and Frederick’s different statuses in the Army reflect the class distinctions that separate them but they remain attached to each other. “There’s a very deep bond between them,” says Dunmore. “I’m interested in male friendship and I don’t think it’s written about enough, perhaps because we tend to stereotype.” After the war, Daniel is haunted by Frederick’s ghost and a strong sense of guilt about his death.
Dunmore, who was born in Yorkshire in 1952, has written 13 novels in the past two decades, including A Spell of Winter (1996), which won the Orange Prize, The Siege (2001) and its sequel The Betrayal (2010). She won the National Poetry Competition with an entry from her most recent collection, The Malarkey (2012), and she’s a prolific children’s author. Most of The Lie – “the fruit of many years work” – was written in St Ives, where she lives on and off, but she wanted to create a fictional Cornish setting this time: “I deliberately didn’t name the town because I didn’t wish to be tied to the archive of a particular place. I wanted the landscape and people to be what Daniel makes of them.”
The silence that follows war could be the lie of the title. “Daniel carries a cargo of experience that nobody wants to hear about,” says Dunmore, but a literal deception occurs when he goes to live in the countryside with Mary Pascoe, an elderly woman whom he has known since childhood. On her deathbed, Mary asks Daniel to bury her on the moor and, after he carries out her wish, he moves in to her cottage and fends off inquiries about her on his visits to town. “Sometimes lies don’t seem important to those who tell them,” Dunmore says, when I observe that they recur in her fiction. “Daniel has spent years in a place where the dead were lucky to be buried. He hasn’t mentally readapted to the civilian world where Mary should have a proper funeral. He doesn’t recognise the disparity between society’s expectations and his own.”
He is, however, bitterly aware of the lack of opportunities that post-war society offers ex-soldiers. Dunmore talks about her characters with affection, discussing their motivations as though they’re as real as her two grown-up children, who are moving about upstairs, but am I right to detect anger in this book? “It’s anger at wasted lives,” she says. “Daniel is a very bright person who has received no education beyond the elementary. He has filled his mind with reading and his own ideas but, at the age of 11, his mother needed him to go out to work and bring home a wage. There’s a scene when he stands outside the grammar school that he can’t afford to attend, listening to the hive of noise inside. He finds it beguiling because,” she lowers her voice to a whisper, “he wants to learn.”
Daniel educates himself, borrowing books from the Dennis’s library, memorising poetry by Coleridge and Byron. Dunmore mentions Edward Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald and Irene Rathbone during our conversation and The Lie is a book that’s made from other books. What is the novelist’s role in marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014? “Fiction has the power not to be ignored,” she says. “A century isn’t a long time to come to terms with a cataclysm that transformed our society. We’re still getting to grips with it but, if you can be drawn in to one life, you can recover a whole world. I was writing at full stretch to capture the intensity of my characters’ lives. I hope their spirit comes through strongly. I tried to show that those who died, and those who grieved for them, were not cannon fodder. They were passionate individuals who wanted to live.”
Visiting the French and Belgian battlefields where the novel’s harrowing scenes take place was overwhelming – “like looking at two landscapes, of past and present, at once” – but does she also experience a palpable sense of history in Cornwall? “There are extraordinary traces of ancient habitation in the land here and the elements haven’t changed. When Katherine Mansfield writes of lovely light coming off the sea, rising up and inhabiting the room, I know what she means.” I mention “the banging wind” – a resonant local detail – and she says: “Frieda Lawrence was frightened of the wind on the moor and, in this novel, I had to isolate Daniel up there.”
As she reveals that she’s working on a novel, which is “not unconnected to The Lie”, she looks distracted, as though her thoughts are with her characters, on the moor, flying in the wind.
Extract: "The Lie" by Helen Dunmore
‘He comes to me, clagged in mud from head to foot. A mud statue, but a breathing one. The breath whistles in and out of him. He stands at my bed-end. Even when the wind is banging over the roof that I’ve bodged with corrugated iron, it’s very quiet. He doesn’t speak. Sometimes I wish that he would break the silence, but then I’m afraid of what he might say’