I haven’t read any books by Helen Dunmore before because, somehow, I’d got it into my head that she only wrote time-slip romantic fiction. Goodness knows why I thought that, but I suppose I’d heard vaguely about The Greatcoat and extrapolated widely to come up with a completely mistaken idea. The Lie has put me right. A poignant, gut-wrenching tale of love, loss, and survivor’s guilt, it tells the story of the young Cornishman Daniel Branwell as he returns home after the horrors of the First World War.
Daniel is alive. That in itself is enough to weigh him down with a sense of unworthiness, as he struggles to fit back into a community that now seems complacent, careless and shallow. It seems foolish even to try. Always the odd one out, Daniel now becomes a recluse, keeping away from the town and taking up home in an old shelter on the land of the widowed Mary Pascoe. Deeply traumatised by what he has witnessed in France, he tries to bring some normality back into his days by digging and sowing and tending Mary Pascoe’s modest crops. And, when the old woman falls ill, with no hope of recovery, she offers to leave her cottage and plot to Daniel on one condition: that he bury her out on the hillside, away from the regimented primness of the graveyard. Daniel agrees and then, as the boundary between life and death seems less important to him than it did before, he simply carries on. He tells no one that Mary Pascoe has died. Instead, fiercely private and protective, he fends off their interest by telling them that she’s ill inside and he’s taking care of her. It begins as a little white lie. But lies have a power of their own.
Besides, Daniel has more important things to worry about than what the townspeople think of Mary Pascoe. Suffering from what we would now recognise as PTSD, he is tormented by the death of his beloved friend Frederick Dennis, with whom he grew up as a boy. They should never have been friends – Frederick is the son of a wealthy family, while Daniel left school at eleven – but something draws them together in an idyllic childhood of beachcombing and exploring, blocking out the intrusions of the wider world. And it gives Daniel a glimpse of something he could never have dreamed of otherwise: the richness of books. He devours the volumes hoarded, unread, in the library of Frederick’s father; he learns poems by heart; he proves that he has the skill, as Frederick never did, to become a brilliant scholar. But he’s also a doughty Cornishman through and through, and his prickly pride scorns any hint of scholarships or special treatment. He just wants to be alone. Or, rather, to be alone with Frederick.
Dunmore beautifully creates the multi-layered bond between the two boys as they grow into young men. It’s one of those intense friendships which shimmers on the edge of being something else, for which our emotionally-stunted language doesn’t have a word. And Dunmore never really clarifies it, just as in life things are very rarely clear. Instead, as readers, we fumble our way through Daniel’s confused feelings and disabling grief, much as he does, trying to read between the lines. Its poignant punch is in its might-have-been. And it’s easy to imagine that similar emotions would have been felt by hundreds, thousands of young men who came home having seen their friends and trenchmates die, for no better reason than ‘there but for the grace of God’. The war scenes are unflinching and sickening – though this isn’t a war story. The scenes in the trenches take up about as much space as the scenes set in the bright, clear, furzey air of the Cornish clifftops. No: this is a more subtle story: a tale of the wounds that war inflicts on us, deep inside, where none but ourselves can see.
So, now that I’ve woken up to my bizarre misconception about Dunmore’s books, what should I try next? Do recommend your favourites. I feel I should read more of her work, partly to make up for my laggardness, and partly as a kind of tribute, as I see that she tragically died of cancer a couple of months ago. What a loss. We’ve lost an elegant, articulate and sensitive writer.