I read Helen Dunmore’s The Lie as part of the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline. I had never read anything by this author, but noticed a number of people commenting on her lyrical writing. That’s something I can’t resist. Add to that the fact that our library just got this book, and there was no stopping me.
At the end of World War I, Daniel Branwell returns to his native Cornwall. His mother, his only relative, has died while he was away fighting. Mary Pascoe, an elderly recluse, lets him build a shelter on her land and scrape a living off the land. While he works, he remembers his childhood spent in company of Frederick and Felicia, the kids who lived in the Great House where his mother worked. He also remembers the war, his time spent in muddy trenches watching friends die. It soon becomes clear that Dan is suffering from survivor’s guilt. At night, he is visited by the ghost of his dead friend, and he is often overpowered by the remembered smell of the battlefield.
I found this recurring detail about the power of smell particularly touching. Dan is a gardener and has always enjoyed growing food and flowers. But after his war experience, the ground that has sustained him and his mother when he was growing up also holds the horrors of the battlefield.
“That was when the smell came to me. It was not the old smell of the cottage, not dirty rags or sickness, not soot or the muck I had scraped off the floor. That had all gone. This was a new smell, and an old one too, so familiar that as it touched my throat, I gagged. It was the smell of earth. Not clean earth, turned up by the spade or the fork, to be sunned and watered. This earth had nothing to do with growth. It was raw and slimy, blown apart in great clods, churned to greasy, liquid mud that sucked down men or horses. It was earth that should have stayed deep and hidden, . . . .”
Eventually, Daniel meets Felicia again, who still lives in the Great House. The two are drawn to each other, because both desperately miss Frederick and find comfort in shared memories. Yet both Daniel and Felicia have changed, and Daniel has trouble reconciling the present-day Felicia, a war widow and mother, with his memories of “Frederick’s little sister.” It all adds to Daniel’s discomfort and creates a certain hopelessness.
There were parts of the book that were truly well written, and I enjoyed the poetry that is interspersed. But overall, I was a little disappointed. I never got a clear picture of Daniel in my mind, and I never felt like I fully understood Felicia. The lie that gives the book its title happens early on, and even though I didn’t find it particularly terrible in its context and found the reaction to it a little blown out of proportion, I’m glad that the author did not gloss over the inevitable ending. It certainly delivered a punch at the end.
Compared to some of the great books I have recently read, this one fell a little short, but I’m on the lookout for more books by Helen Dunmore.