One hundred years since the start of the first world war Dunmore has returned to a subject she has written about twice before (Zennor in Darkness and A Spell in Winter) and The Lie is a timely reminder of what happened to thousands of young men fighting in the trenches in France. It’s Cornwall in 1920 and Daniel Branwell is back from fighting in the trenches and is living in a put up shack in the garden of the aged and dying Mary Pascoe. But Daniel isn’t alone: his former childhood friend, Frederick Dennis has followed him back from France ‘clagged in mud from head to foot. A mud statue, but a breathing one’. It’s the smell that tells Daniel Frederick is near ‘the smell of mud… thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime’. Although Frederick isn’t real, his presence is a powerful one, and we realise that although Daniel has returned physically, mentally he’s never left the horror of the trenches. The friendship between Daniel and Frederick at the heart of the book is the most important relationship in Daniel’s life and Frederick’s death horrifies and haunts him.
Whilst Daniel battles against his demons he cares for the ailing Mary and starts work restoring the plot of land that she intends him to have. Mary dies and Daniel carries out her dying wish and buries her on her own land. He doesn’t admit to her death, however, not even to Felicia, Frederick’s widowed sister with whom Daniel strikes up a friendship, and the lie he tells that she is inside too ill to receive visitors changes his future.
Daniel and Frederick were unlikely companions: Daniel, one of the poorest children in the village, whose mother cleaned for Frederick’s family, left school at eleven in order to work and yet it is he that takes advantage of the great library in the Dennis household reading practically everything it contains, committing it to memory and later reciting it to Frederick who is himself not interested in reading; Frederick is the privileged rich boy, son of a mining engineer who is sent to boarding school not ‘so much to learn things… as to distinguish between them’ and eventually becomes an officer over Daniel in France. Despite their obvious class differences they become ‘blood brothers’ doing it with ‘words from The Jungle Book, using his seven bladed knife… Frederick called me BB, and that was our password’. Their friendship continues right to the end.
Dunmore is an accomplished poet as well as a novelist and her skills are fully on display here, coming at the truth of what Daniel’s witnessed in the trenches, not by describing a gory battle scene, but by giving us a moment when Daniel is back at home, where we see the post war world in the same way he does:
‘Their skin is a veil to hide their intestines and the raw, slimy flesh from within. I see how their bones would split and separate. I see a jagged edge protrude through a thigh or an elbow. I see bodies picked up, torn to pieces, flung on to the ground.’
The effect is all the more visceral and disturbing as a result. The book is also suffused with poetry excerpts some of which are taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner who kills an albatross. Daniel considers that ‘the albatross… was not only an albatross. It was the thing without which you can continue to live, but no longer be human.’ Daniel, in failing to save his friend perhaps no longer feels human himself and Coleridge’s ‘frightful fiend’ who ‘Doth close behind him tread’ is ever present in Daniel’s world, breathing his mud scented breath over him. Daniel is terrified and so are we.
Daniel is clearly suffering from what we would now term post traumatic stress disorder, but after the War there would have been no understanding of the effect on Daniel of the horror he had faced and continues to face. Each ‘visitation’ is accompanied by the smell of mud that Daniel tells us is ‘so familiar that as it touched my throat I gagged’.
It’s not often that a literary novel is also a compelling page turner that has you ripping through the pages as fast as you can, but that also makes you want to stop and linger over the beautiful prose, but reading The Lie will give you such an experience. It’s a story of love, friendship, memory and unbearable loss that examines the consequences of untruthfulness in Daniel’s own life, but also in the wider context of the first world war.
Any Cop?: The Lie is a triumph of a novel and Dunmore’s best book yet. Her ability to conjure the horror of the first world war, the tenderness of the deep friendship between Daniel and Frederick and later the quiet, sympathetic relationship between Daniel and Felicia, together with the sheer horror of Daniel’s almost daily encounters with the ghost of his dead friend is beautiful, electrifying and terrifying. I hope it’s nominated for, and wins, many prizes because it deserves to. Daniel laments that it’s said that the war is over ‘but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.’ A hundred years may have passed, but as we look back and commemorate the event we’d do well to remember that the crack is still all too visible.