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Review: The Lie, by Helen Dunmore
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014. 294 pp. $25

“A memory like mine is more a curse than a blessing. It cuts into the past, as sharp as a knife, and serves it up glistening.” So observes Daniel Branwell, a British soldier returned to his native Cornish village in 1920, where he hopes to make a life after the Great War.

But Daniel has no home he may call his own, living in a cottage informally bequeathed him by an elderly woman whom he tended in her final illness. He worries that he’ll be turned off her property and prosecuted for having buried her on her land, as she wished, instead of the village cemetery.

From this seemingly modest premise, Helen Dunmore has created a page-turner of extraordinary depth and beauty, which has touched me ever since I finished it and probably will for a long time. Daniel’s homelessness is a metaphor for his struggles to find a place in the world, which have plagued him all his life; I love novels whose premise is itself a powerful, elegant image. But Dunmore takes this further, for her protagonist has an even more serious problem, an inability to find a resting place within himself.

Daniel’s sharp memory overwhelms him. The rocks, the sea, the pathways around the village, everything reminds him of Frederick, his closest boyhood friend who was killed in France, while he, Daniel, survived. Frederick’s sister, Felicia, Daniel’s first love, still lives in the village, which brings up more memories. But usually, he relives the war, which Dunmore renders mostly in words of one or two syllables, as with this passage, which narrates his thoughts during a visit to Felicia, now a war widow with a young child:

This is what we dreamed of, in France. Fire, and four walls, dry feet, a belly warm with food. Children’s toys on the floor. We talked about such things as if they were gone from the earth. You couldn’t believe in them. I still can’t, even though I’m here. I say Frederick’s name, but the room doesn’t answer.

The many lyrical passages like this convey Daniel’s longing, his pain, and, elsewhere, his rage–at the world, for passing him by, or the villagers, who treat him like an intruder, a shameful reminder of what they themselves escaped. But his trauma seems a quiet desperation, even when he’s reliving blood and thunder, the sort of understatement I find more compelling than the sound and fury that so often describes a mind torn by combat.

Perhaps most impressive about The Lie is the author’s range. I had read two historical thrillers of hers, The Siege and The Betrayal (can we say Dunmore likes simple titles?), which, though excellent, differ from this novel.

Do read The Lie. I haven’t been as moved by a novel about the First World War, one of my favorite subjects, since I finished A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry.