I really like stories that surprise me. Stories where I think I have it all figured out, feel a little let down that they are following a predictable path and covering ground that has been tilled many times over, but then am thrown at the end. I thought I knew where Helen Dunmore was going with her WWI novel, The Lie. Maybe it is war fatigue on my part. When you have been reading about a certain topic from so many different vantage points you begin feeling a little jaded. So, a war story about two friends of different classes--one comes back and the other doesn't. Throw in a little shell shock, a few battlefield scenes and you begin feeling as though you've already read this somewhere else, right?
The lie. I thought I knew what the lie was going to be. If not what exactly the lie was, I had a good idea from where it would stem. Daniel Branwell has returned from the War outwardly unscathed, strong and in one piece. He has returned to his home in Cornwall, though his family is gone now. Appearances are misleading--they are misleading all over this story as a matter of fact. This is a story about the consequences of war on one individual who has returned home alone and scarred psychologically. Daniel went to war as an ordinary soldier, but Frederick, as the son of a wealthy man went as an officer. The two men have known each other all their lives. They've grown up together though not as equals of the same class. Frederick has had all the advantages but Daniel has all the wits and book learning. The two share an intensely close friendship. I think of him and write of him in the present as though he is here in the story, yet he's only ever in Daniel's memories and his imagination.
Maybe it is survivor's guilt? Frederick does not survive the war, and what happened to him in France weighs heavily on Daniel's mind. As a matter of fact his recollections of the war and the horror of trying to save his friend and ultimately his inability to bring back his friend to safety--either to the safety of the trench or back to Cornwall--will be his unravelling.
But there is much more to the story than that. Frederick is always a palpable presence in the story, and certainly in Daniel's mind. So much so that he often appears at the end of Daniel's bed covered in mud and smelling of fear and death. The story might almost be taken for a ghost story, but Frederick only is ever really present in Daniel's mind. What happens takes place after the war has ended yet the war is so tightly woven into the fabric of Daniel's life that the flashbacks roll along with the story almost imperceptibly.
Daniel has taken over a cottage belonging to an elderly friend of his mother's. Until she took ill she kept a small garden and some hens and a goat. Upon her death she wills it all to Daniel and asks him to bury her close to her home having no desire for a proper burial. She wants only to lie in her own land and not under a stone in the village. He honors her wishes but is secretive about it. He doesn't tell anyone she has died leaving them to believe he is taking care of her. It isn't through a desire to mislead only he isn't sure who to tell and then as time passes he feels it's too late. He's not even entirely truthful with Felicia, Frederick's sister, with whom he has a burgeoning relationship. She grew up with Daniel as well, and was a devoted sister to Frederick who is always there between the two. She married and had a daughter but like so many other men her husband didn't come home either.
Frederick is the glue that holds the story together but there is more at play here. It's a tragic story in so many ways and a look at how the war lingers on through the ones loved and lost. It's such a subtle story and one that has unexpected turns. But as I was finishing the book I was thinking it is as if you can't see the forest for the trees. It's Dunmore's handling of the lie that raised the story up for me. I could be reading more into it than is there, but there is almost a play on words and a juxtaposition of facts and plots. The lie was nothing that I initially expected though it was there all along. I was just looking in the wrong place going on my own expectations. And the story ends in ambiguity. Strangely all these elements that would normally signify a little frustration for a reader were what alleviated my own frustrations for how I expected the story to pan out.
I've liked everything I've read by Helen Dunmore, and I liked The Lie since it was a typical sort of story handled in an unexpected way. While this is not my favorite story by her, I'm glad I didn't let the book get lost amongst my other reads. There is more here than meets the eye and more to think about, which I have barely touched on, which is for me always a sign of a good read.
I read Helen Dunmore's The Lie for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. You can read her thoughts on the novel here. Next up is a memoir by Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War. He was a war poet by the way. I'm afraid I've left it too long to start now (as I am working at catching up on my own reading pile), so I will give this one a miss and join in with Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You for September, which I've had on TBR pile for ages and have heard many good things about.