Helen Dunmore: The Lie (2014) Literature and War Readalong July 2014

The Lie

The Lie is not the first WWI novel Helen Dunmore has written. Nor is it her first book about war. While you certainly don’t have to read Zennor in Darkness, or The Siege, or her ghost story The Greatcoat, before you read The Lie, it’s interesting to see how she approaches war from different angles. The Lie is foremost about the aftermath of war. About the scarring, the wounds, in the souls, the bodies, the land.

The Lie is set after WWI in Cornwall. The narrator, Daniel, lives on a forlorn piece of land, overlooking the sea. He’s shell-shocked, but unlike so many other soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, who populate literature, he’s taciturn and withdrawn. Even people who know him, like his childhood friend Felicia, would not be able to tell what is going on inside of his head.

I’ve been quiet a long time, I know that. It happens. I go back in my mind. It’s not the same thing as remembering, because it has colour and smell and taste.

The land on which Daniel lives belongs to Mary Pascoe, an old woman, almost blind and frail, who lived outside of society, far from the town, all of her life. WhenDaniel returns from the war, she let’s him seek shelter on her land. When she becomes very ill and blind, Daniel takes care of her and moves into her cottage with her. She makes him promise not to fetch a doctor and to stay on her land once she’s dead.

He takes care of her until her last moment and buries her on her land. Daniel is an able gardener and can live of the land, whose soil is rich. There’s a goat and hens as well. When people start to inquire about Mary, he tell’s them she’s still alive.  The lie will be his undoing.

The story moves back and forth in time, is interwoven with flashbacks of his childhood during which he was friends with Frederick and Felicia, and flashbacks of the war.

I was green as grass. And there was first aid drill, which was like no first aid I ever saw in France. We had a dummy which kept still and didn’t scream, bleed, or stink of shit because its insides were falling out. They taught us to tie a tourniquet, and apply field dressings, and that gas lies in pockets close to the ground long after you think it’s cleared.

You’d think selfishness would be the stronger force, but it turns out that it’s not so. Tell a man to unwrap his puttees, take off his boots, dry each toe individually, examine his feet for sores and rub them all over with whale oil, and tell him if he doesn’t he’ll get trench foot which will cause his feet to go black and stink and maybe even have to cut off — well, you’d think he’d do it. But he doesn’t. He’s cold and wet and dead beat and all he wants is to get some kip. Tell him he’s responsible for the feet of the man next to him, and he does it.

Daniel fights on his own at first and later, with Frederick. Frederick and Felicia come from money, while Daniel is the son of a poor housekeeper. Frederick’s and Daniel’s friendship is tested often due to these class differences; it ultimately survives, because the attachment is so profound.

During the war the class difference almost splits them up, but their friendship survives even this test. It even survives death. We know from the beginning that Frederick is killed in France. We just don’t know how, but assume that Daniel must have witnessed it and feels guilty, as he’s haunted by his death. And by Frederick’s ghost. I thought it was strange that she chose to write another ghost story, right after The Greatcoat, but this isn’t a ghost story. I read the ghost as a symbol for how deeply rooted the trauma of war is.

All at once I know he’s going to come. The dead aren’t tied to one place. He’s as fearful as I am, more maybe. He knows what’s coming to him, and he can’t get away from it. Something’s gone wrong. Thing’s out to stop, once they’re finished, but this won’t stop. They say the war is over, but they are wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe. Once you fall into it, you can’t get out again. The mud is too deep and it holds you.

Daniel isn’t the only one grieving. Felicia has lost her husband and her brother in the war. When they meet again for the first time, they are both wary. They have changed and are not sure  whether there is more than their connection with Frederick that brings them together, or if there is a possibility of friendship, even love.

The Lie is a poetical story. The flashbacks are so tightly woven into the progressing story that they become part of it. Nothing that Daniel does, doesn’t remind him of the war. When he repairs Felicia’s furnace, he’s transported back to the trenches. When he cultivates the land, and digs in the soil, he’s reminded of the mud in France.

The most beautiful parts are the descriptions of this forlorn country, covered in furze and bracken, smelling of salty sea air and the richness of its soil. But in spite of these beautiful passages, I found the novel and its tragic ending, extremely depressing. And I didn’t get why the lie had such tragic consequences.


Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

TJ (My Book Strings)

Violet (Still Life With Books)



The Lie is the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI memoir Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. Discussion starts on Friday 29 August, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

33 thoughts on “Helen Dunmore: The Lie (2014) Literature and War Readalong July 2014

  1. Depression is always a risk with war novels–although I didn’t have that reaction to FEAR, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I liked it so much. The lie you mentioned here and its tragic consequences which didn’t quite gel can make a novel underwhelming.

    • Same here. Fear didn’t depress me but this one did. the landscape, the way he lives, it’s so bleak and he’s shell-shocked.
      I was decidedly a bit underwhelmed.

    • I absolutely loved Zennor in Darkness and The Siege.
      I’ve not read The Greatcoat yet but some reviews. I’m going to read it next. This one was not as good but I love the way she writes. you can sense the poet.

  2. I didn’t find the landscape to be particularly depressing, but Dunmore created some powerful images when the landscape would trigger Daniel’s memories of the war. I was a bit underwhelmed because I didn’t feel like I got a clear picture of Daniel. But I will definitely check out more books by her. I already have The Siege on order, and I am intrigued by The Greatcoat. So thanks for introducing me to a new author!

    • Everything together was depressing. the loneliness, the harsh landscape, the poverty of that old woman.
      The Siege is amazing. Not as lyrical as Zennor in Darkness but stunning. It’s much more brutal and gruesome but i didn’t find it so depressing.
      I have whole pile of her books and want to read more.

    • If you are interested i her “war stories” – then yes but it’s a very shocking book in places, but I loved it.
      I have her bookpeople collection (10 books for 9£! – and they do send to the US as well now) – I need to read them chronologically.

  3. Caroline,
    A beautifully written review–gosh, Caroline–lovely! Like you, I didn’t “get” the ending either. I am an avid fan of Dunmore’s–a rabid one even. But I must admit I found myself questioning her judgment on this one. So much loss, so much tragedy already. I don’t think the characters needed more or her readers.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Judith.
      That ending, right? It shocked me quite a bit. I didn’t see it coming. It made it all so hopeless. I wonder if she’ll continue with Felicia’s story. I know she wrote a sequel to The Siege.
      I’m a huge fan of her writing as well. I want to read The Greatcoat to now.

  4. Beautiful review, Caroline! This looks like a beautiful book. It is sad that the lie costs Daniel in the end. It is depressing when a book has a tragic ending, especially when an alternate ending was possible. I loved all the sentences you have quoted.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I find she writes beuatifully but it was bleak. I’m not sure about the ending in relation to the lie but in a way I do understand it. There’s a lot of bad timing which makes it heartbreaking.
      I need to make up my mind and read another of her novels, one that has nothing to do with war. I could imagine they are even more poetical.

  5. I like the passages that you quoted. They are kind of knowing and philosophical in a down to earth way. Based upon your commentary the characters and imagery also sound very strong.

    I have not read Helen Dunmore but it sounds like I want to.

  6. The last sentence of your review rather put me off. It’s so fundamental the book’s named after it, yet it’s an element that doesn’t quite gel? That’s problematic.

    She’s right on selfishness. It’s why so much post-apocalyptic fiction and drama is nonsense. There’s a lot of evidence that when a crisis hits people don’t go all out everyone for themselves, altruism and self-sacrifice is common, if anything people cooperate more than normal, We’re better at times than we think we are.

    • It was problematic. I like her writing, I like the elements but as a whole it failed because of she gave the wrong importnace to the lie.
      I loved that quote and had to add it. That’s how my father spoke about his years in Algeria and I’m pretty sure, that’s how it was. But that’s a soldiers perspective. I feel civilians aren’t always this altruistic in a crisis. Many are, of course. I hope, if we ever have to find out, that people really prove to be better.

  7. I read The Lie, but I haven’t had time to write my thoughts on it yet. I liked the writing and thought the novel was very evocative of that era, but I don’t feel very enthusiastic about the book, overall. I felt as though I was kept at arms-length from the characters, or something.

    Anyway, I think Dunmore captured the bleakness and misery of the time, and the dilemmas facing returning soldiers, who must have suffered from acute survivor guilt after seeing all that went on in the trenches. I guess someone with PTSD isn’t going to be seeing things straight, and I think that Daniel just kept digging himself deeper into the lie because the cottage represented safety to him. I guess he felt there was no way out once he’d told the lie, and that sort of distorted thinking is probably attributable to PTSD. The end wasn’t a great surprise to me and I think it was fitting, considering how committed Dunmore was to portraying war-related PTSD. The thing I was most interested in was the homoerotic aspect of Daniel and Frederick’s relationship. I think the ending had a lot to do with Daniel’s feelings about Frederick and it seemed to be the only way it could all end, really. I agree that it’s a bleak book, but then it was a horribly bleak time and I think Dunmore tried for a faithful representation. It didn’t hit the spot for me, although I did like the writing. I might try another of her books sometime.

    I always wonder about people who say that Mrs Dalloway is a lovely book. Do they just skim the parts about Septimus Warren and pretend he’s not in the novel? I don’t understand why people aren’t disturbed by his story.

    • I’m looking forward to your review. I think we feel the same about this. I’m a fan of her writing and in this regard, this was no disappointment but something was off. Now that you mention this homoerotic element, which I hadn’t even detected, it makes much more sense. It’s there but it’s not conscious. That’s why it can’t work with Felicia.
      I’m sure the times were very bleak but she chose to have him live in a forlorn place, all alone in a hovel. That added to that.
      I do understand why he lied, I also understood why he could tell less and less but I didn’t understand why it would be such a catastrophe when people found out abour Mary Pascoe.
      I need to re-read Mrs Dalloway because he’s blurred in my mind but I remember it as disturbing. Still, what I think of, when I think of Mrs Dalloway, is the flower shop. But I read it a long time ago, as a teenager. I

  8. I admire Helen Dunmore but I have trouble with her writing. Like Donna Tartt she can leave me feeling queasy – there’s a lack of containment about what she writes, she really drops the reader in at the deep end without any protection or distance, and she can be straightforwardly visceral in a squeamish-making way. So I admire her – a lesser writer wouldn’t have such a powerful effect – but I tend not to read her.

    • I can see why. There wasn’t a lot of room to escape the sadness in this book. It was not gruesome in any way but it was impressive nonetheless.
      But I love her writing.

    • I agree with Litlove about the visceral quality of Dunmore’s writing although given the subject matter of this one I didn’t find it made me flinch as much as some of her other novels. Your Blue Eyed boy I had to stop reading for a while because I found it over-powering but it was worth going back to.

  9. I finished The Lie this morning. I have some catching up to do with this year’s readalong as I haven’t got around to Fear yet.

    I found myself carried along by this one. It felt as though she’d captured the spirit of the immediate post WW1 era very well and the bleakness of the West country. I liked the way she made use of the officers training manual as epigraphs.

    I was wondering how she was going to bring it to an end, given the mess that Daniel had got himself into. I found the ending a relief compared to what might have happened to him (a lynching or a hanging). At least he made a choice.

    • Yes, I thought the epigraphs were a great idea. Some of it sounds so silly – seen in context.
      It was entirely bleak and – in some way – the end was a relief. But I still don’t understand why their reaction to hi staying on the land was this extreme.
      Fear was maybe one of the best this year. I hope you get to read it. I thought it was amazing.

  10. What a whip lash from the last book. As much as I loved “Fear”, I loathed “The Lie”. It was a chore to finish it and if it was not for the readalong and my loyalty to it, I would have stopped after the first chapter. I was not disappointed, however, because I did not anticipate it being very good. It certainly lived up to my expectations. I did not find it particularly well written. The whole central plot of him squatting on the old lady’s place was boring. I had to go back and reread if he had killed her because I could not see what the big deal was. To have the town chase him with pitch forks like he was Frankenstein’s monster was ludicrous! The only thing I liked was the infrequent flashbacks to the trenches. The subplot of whether Daniel was attracted to Frederick in a sexual way felt like Dunmore trying to be naughty in a Victorian way – gag! I did not find the ending depressing. I was just glad it came and saw it coming from a mile away.

    My biggest complaint is the title implies the book is about the ‘lie” governments tell young men to get them to go to war, not a stupid lie a soldier tells about the death of an old lady.

    Bring on “Undertones of War” which I have projected as a 4 star book.

    • What you say about the lie is how I felt. And given the eKipling quote title and that did not prepare me for that sort of lie.
      I did understand why he lied but not the consequences. I did not get the homosexual sub-plot. It already made sense when Violet mentioned it but now even more.
      I like the writing and thought the way she wrote the flashbacks was wonderful.
      I’m not surprised you didn’t like it.

  11. Hi, Caroline. I regret to say that I haven’t read anything by Helen Dunmore, but it sounds like I’m really missing something. I have, however, read through the comments above, and in the discussion about why the lie the soldier tells about the old lady is so important to the plot, I think I see something which often occurs in fiction, one of the most frequent things that can happen, which happens in order to advance the plot or bring it to an end. That is the classical so-called “fatal flaw” or “moment of hubris,” and possibly it happens here in contrast to the above-mentioned way the soldiers are so selfless towards each other in war. Daniel must be selfish or at least self-centered in order to survive after the old lady dies, and even though every reader can probably understand why he does it, and feel distress that the other characters don’t understand him, the tragic point is made that once war is over, the special sorts of understanding that people had for each other in the trenches no longer apply. That’s just my guess from hearing the talk above; I hope you don’t mind a theory from someone who hasn’t read the book. It just seemed to me that this was the point people were talking around.

    • Hi, Victoria, I don’t mind at all. It’s an interesting theory and it doesn actually make a lot of sense. I just think it was unfortunate that she used the Kipiling quote about the lie to the soldiers and the named her book “The Lie” but it was an entirely different lie. Now, after reading your comment, I wonder if that wasn’t the point. To show how the lies of the fathers killed so many, millions, and nobody pays for it, while a small lie – in compariosn – has such fatal consequences in peace time. Yes, that makes sense. Thanks a lot this input.

  12. Nice review, Caroline. It sounds like a book with a lot of beauty, but of course when you call it The Lie, it puts a lot of pressure on that lie to be something powerful. I can understand why you and some of the other commenters felt a bit let down.

    • No, the lie had nothing to do with the war at all. You could say it was a consequence of the war and the book certainly manages to show a traumatized character. Guilt ridden and grieving. It’s very sad.

  13. Pingback: Louisa Young: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You (2011) Literature and War Readalong September 2014 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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