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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence