Helen Dunmore – The Lie (2014)

The Lie

The blurb for this short novel reads:

Cornwall 1920

A young man stands looking out to sea.

Behind him the horror of the trenches, and the most intense relationship of his life.

Ahead of him the terrible unforeseen consequences of a lie.

I picked up this book for two reasons. First I had read previous books by Dunmore and her flair for recreating an historic moment through careful research but few words is a pleasure. Second, it is about the First World War, an era that fascinates me by being both near and far in the public imagination.

L P Hartley wrote as the first words to The Go Between:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Contrast this with Eric Midwinter (1994: 11) writing about history and social policy:

It is more than a passing or antiquated interest which should prompt an appraisal of medieval England. Apart from the discovery there of the origins of some present day welfare mechanisms, it serves the other purpose of demonstrating how societies different in style from our own are faced with basically similar problems

The past is both different and similar. It holds the key to the present and can predict the future. It often feels exotic, ‘different’, other and it is difficult to know how to respond to those who inhabit it. Over my life time, I have watched the First World War disappear from ‘living memory’. In my teenage years, I watched as each November fewer and fewer frail, old men would approach the Cenotaph wearing poppies and knew that they had experienced something both ‘foreign’ and familiar. Reading about the war, I find empathy for the characters both necessary and terrifying. The bleakness of the trenches and the stretching of the human spirit appals me and yet amazes me, because men did it. They must be human like me, but they can’t be, can they? So, I search the texts for answers to why so many were allowed to die in such awful circumstances, how some of them survived and how society responded. Are they really like me? Is empathy required? Or can I give myself a break and just think of WW1 soldiers as different, that time has passed, it is all finished? Is society so different and could this happen/ is this happening again?

The Lie is a ghost story and the remote isolation of a Cornish village is an ideal site for haunting. Many of the trappings of the genre can be found here: an orphan, a large house with mysterious creaking pipes, an untrusting and mistrusted old woman, peaks, cliffs, heavy wind and the desperation of somebody needing to communicate beyond the grave.

However, as I moved away from the book, what haunted me was the portrayal of a class system, both foreign and familiar. It is not necessarily a hated institution, as Daniel observes:

There was an easiness in the town that would have made room for me if I’d let her.

But the novel explores what happens to those who cannot sit easy, who cannot accept their place or whose presence is uneasy for others. Within the narrative, the isolation of the returning soldier is punctuated by flashbacks to the trenches and an impoverished childhood. Some of it is savage, including a childhood fight motivated possibly by jealousy, or more likely, a deep-seated injustice at the lack of opportunity and an ambitious intellect thwarted by inequality. The ferocity of Daniel’s attack is underlined by his embarrassment at the stigma of charity and pity. Frustration and anger are ever present in the book, but so is tenderness and friendship. One of the most heart-breaking images is Daniel putting on his best trousers when he has returned home to find them too short. He was fighting a war for a country that had refused to educate him, before he had even finished growing.

Daniel is not perfect and at the centre of the plot is a lie (more an act of omission) that allows the other villagers to pass judgement on this unwelcome outsider. However, Daniel is more lied to than liar. He cannot tell his own history. Most importantly, a significant relationship across class boundaries and moral taboos cannot be acknowledged. I have used this quote (Czarniawska, 2004: 5)before:

… other people or institutions concoct narratives for others without including them in a conversation; this is what power is about

Here the problems that this produces are laid out for the reader. There is a desperate scrambling by Daniel to understand the stories of the dead, so he can understand his own. But there is no peace to work this out and the haunting that needs attending to is being drowned out by the stories others want to tell about him.

I was pleased I picked this book up because it gave me a focus for my current uneasiness about the ‘celebratory’ solemnity of current World War 1 commemorations (or even the use of World War 1 imagery to sell groceries). There is still this desire to bring about a unified narrative that is about heroics and nationalism. It sits uneasy with the knowledge that class and a version of masculinity were used to lead great numbers to the slaughter. World War 1 is not one story, but many, some too terrible to contemplate. As a teenager watching the low-key shambling of veterans remembering their fallen teenage comrades, I was also introduced the poetry of Wilfred Owen. One of my favourite poem remains Dulce et Decorum est (although I know some literature academics who think I should have moved on), but it still panics and jars me away from the sway of the grand narrative, the overarching single story. Lying is one way in which humans communicate. However, there is something fatal about the combination of lying and power. This intrigues me when it comes to history, how the ghosts of wartime, are used to haunt peace time and how even now the telling of WW1 is an act of power.

When I read Owen and his discussion of a lie, I hear an argument about the futility of conflict, but it is also possible for others to read it as the glorification of militarism.

Dulce et Decorum est

Wilfred Owen (1917)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

References:

Czarniawska, B. (2004) Narratives in Social Science Research London: Sage

Dunmore, H. (2014) The Lie London: Windmill Books

Hartley, L. P. (1953, 2004) The Go-Between London: Penguin Modern Classics

Midwinter, E. (1994) The Development of Social Welfare in Britain Berkshire: Open University Press

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