(Hutchinson, £14.99)

Review: 'The Lie' by Helen Dunmore

A Great War novel that traverses themes of delayed trauma and survivor guilt

Almost a century has passed, but the First World War still tempts the big men of power into bombardments of big words. The legion of first-rate writers tempered by the conflict varied in their views of it: as a whole, they sound not so much anti-war  (although plenty were) as anti-cliché, anti-cant, anti-abstraction. Against the platitudes of duty and sacrifice they set (for instance) the hellish texture of the trench mud we feel at the beginning of The Lie, “Thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chlorite of lime”.

Along with Susan Hill, Pat Barker and Louisa Young, Helen Dunmore belongs to an admirable group of modern British women writers who have kept faith with the scarred  victims of the Great War. Not only front-line combatants have held their gaze. Dunmore began her  career in fiction with Zennor  in Darkness, which imagined the  hunted Cornish life of DH Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda von Richthofen, as they sought to escape war fever in 1917. Now she revisits those landscapes in a Great War novel of survivor-guilt, of delayed trauma, and of the loving cross-class friendships that war both made, and broke.

Orphaned and lonely, the poorest kid in a poor Cornish coastal town, Daniel Branwell laments that “when the net of family was cast, I was  by-catch”. Yet this superfluous boy, a lover of language who remembers poems as easily as breathing, befriends Frederick Dennis, son of a prosperous mine engineer. The lads become inseparable. Divided by rank but united by affection, they serve together in France in the Great War’s latter stages. Their trench nightmares may be familiar by now, but via Daniel’s hallucinatory first-person narrative, Dunmore’s vivid and visceral prose avoids any sense of formulaic horror.

Daniel lives; his beloved “blood brother” dies, despite the struggle to rescue him from a fetid shell-hole that we glimpse, piece by piece, as the jigsaw of trauma takes shape. In the present, Daniel has come home to re-build his life in an isolated  cottage. As he wrestles with the thin Cornish soil, phosphorescent fragments of the past ambush him. “Those terrible pictures rise up in me”, and he has visions of a ghostly Frederick. As he puts it, “This is the afterlife”. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one of the poems he  absorbed through the cherished books in Frederick’s father’s library, tells him that “if you kill the  albatross, you can never return to your own country”.

Scene by terror-stricken, slime-washed scene, Dunmore gradually fills in Daniel’s ordeals at the front, while the “awful ecstasy” of bereavement brings him close to Frederick’s sister Felicia, left a widow with a daughter at 19. As for the titular “lie” that drives the plot, some readers may think it has a merely symbolic rapport with Daniel’s wartime guilt and grief. But in this hollowed-out aftermath, “there isn’t anything  between life and death”. In a world of stunned survivors – ghosts of themselves – old laws and values fade into futility.

Aficionados of Great War fiction may feel that Dunmore adds little to a genre that she has enriched. However, many younger readers – the people targeted by politicians in their propaganda barrages – will need to learn these truths again. Distinguished by the sensual, compact intensity of Dunmore’s prose, The Lie lays bare on its local canvas the invisible wounds of a global  catastrophe. “They say the war’s over,” Daniel reflects, “but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.” We still inhabit that abyss.

Order at the discounted price of£12.49 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
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
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

  • 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