Review: 'The Lie' by Helen Dunmore
A Great War novel that traverses themes of delayed trauma and survivor guilt
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 11 January 2014
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
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boringfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Howard Jacobson: Let’s see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is
- 2 Scottish independence: Former pro-union voters explain why they changed their minds to the Yes vote
- 3 Gingers face extinction due to climate change, scientists warn
- 4 Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014: In defence of Mesut Ozil - the Arsenal midfielder works magic in the shadows
- 5 Pornhub pleads with users to stop uploading videos of Brazil 'getting f**ked by Germany' in the World Cup
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
British jihadist calls for 'flag of Islam' over Downing Street and Buckingham Palace
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
There’s a nasty smell in the political air – and it’s coming from the Tories