This is my second First World War novel this year, and having read some of Helen Dunmore’s previous novels I was certain that I’d love The Lie. I did indeed love a great deal of it, but I wasn’t totally consumed by it.
The beginning is beautiful and disturbing. Daniel tells of the ghost that comes to him, and the description of the mud forever clagging Frederick’s body is evocative and moving. Daniel has not left the trenches behind; he sees the mud always wet and shining ‘like the eyes of a rat in the back of a dugout.’ The first page gave me shivers. The story moves between Daniel’s life post-war as he tries to establish a normal life again, and his past, which is forever intertwined with Frederick’s. The two boys grew up together, despite the gap in their social status they forged a friendship only broken by the war’s unquenchable demand for the lives of young men.
The parts set in the past felt much more immediate and real to me than those about Daniel’s present. In particular I loved the descriptions of his war experience, as haunting and awful as they were. Daniel is changed by what he’s been through, and I think some of the distance I felt from the narrative after his return is actually Daniel’s own difficulty in connecting with reality. He’s preoccupied to the point of obsession with Frederick’s death. During one of his visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia they open a jar of chutney made in 1916. Daniel is struck by the sadness and meaninglessness of this jar outliving Frederick. And of course, it is meaningless in the sense that anything exists after something else is gone.
I was drawn in by the theme of stories and storytelling. Daniel loves reading; he gets lost in novels and poems and can effortlessly recall every poem he’s ever read. Frederick has no love of reading but craves the words from Daniel’s lips, urging him to retell the stories for him and recite the poems. It’s the storyteller that captivates Frederick. Their relationship is full of unconsummated and perhaps unacknowledged passion. This is one of the reasons Daniel can’t let him go, but not the only one.
There is more than one lie in the book, but I think the main ones concern death. The big lie Daniel tells in the present echoes that of the past and the first is partly responsible for the second. I didn’t enjoy the parts of the story where Daniel avoids confronting where his lies will lead him but I’m sympathetic to his misplaced attempts to honour a dying wish. I also found the beginning of the end a bit abrupt; it felt a little like a villagers-with-pitchforks horror scene. But the very end was sublime; Daniel grasps at the only version of the world that has any meaning for him. Tragic doesn’t even come close.
I borrowed The Lie from my local library.