Not safe in one’s mind

This is my review of The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

For the centenary marking the outbreak of the Great War, Helen Dunmore has developed one of the few remaining neglected themes: the aftermath of the return from the trenches. Bright working class Cornishman Daniel is already an outsider in that he has spent his childhood playing with the children of a local landowner. Too poor to attend grammar school, he is self taught from secretly borrowing books from the wealthy man's library. Outwardly uninjured but destitute, he is allowed to squat on the neglected land of the elderly Mary Paxton. In his rural solitude, Daniel is continually haunted by the presence of his childhood friend Frederick, killed at the Front, and he is prey to the panic attacks and irrational urges to commit acts of violence that inevitably arouse fear and rejection in those ignorant of either traumatic stress disorder or the sheer hell of trench warfare, that is, virtually everyone. What could be an unbearably sad story is transformed by the writer's skill in enabling the reader to feel a strong empathy with Daniel and to understand his attitude to life and the behaviour that deviates from the norms of his society, because of what he has experienced.

For me, this is a near perfect novel in style, structure, pace and meaning. My only slight reservation is that I think Dunmore goes on a bit about the central heating system – I suppose meant to be analogous to underground military tunnels.

Deceptively simple with a strong narrative drive and tight structure, the tale is interwoven skilfully with frequent flashbacks to Daniel's childhood and life as a soldier. I was also very taken by the tragically ludicrous bits of advice for soldiers culled from old army training manuals (I believe) for insertion at the start of each chapter. For instance, measures to prevent the disease of "trench foot" caused by standing in cold water and mud include: "taking every opportunity to have.. the feet dried, well rubbed and dry socks (of which each man should carry a pair) put on".

Despite knowing that I should be taking my time over the author's telling insights and striking descriptions, sparely poetic, of the Cornish landscape, I felt an exorable drive on to the ending, knowing that "the lie" Daniel has told to satisfy the narrow conventions of his society must be exposed: "The man has penance done, and penance more will do". There is of course another lie in the false or confused basis on which so many young men went to die in the first place.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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