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.
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