Exposed on the moors: Helen Dunmore’s new novel 'The Lie'

Helen Dunmore’s new novel explores the legacy of the Great War

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

Hutchinson £14.99

‘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’

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine