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13 January 2014

Helen Dunmore: The Lie

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Another aspect on the horrors of war
In "The Lie" Helen Dunmore has made a very different contribution to the miriad of novels about the Great War. In a series of interconnected and carefully crafted stories of events, Dunmore looks at the war through the eyes of Daniel Branwell who has returned to Cornwall, shell-shocked from the war. Daniel is continually is haunted by the fate of his best friend Frederick Dennis who was one of the fallen.

On his return Daniel has no home and little money but finds a friend in Marie Pascoe, a dying old lady who gives him shelter near his home village.When Mary dies, Daniel takes over her smallholding, but tells people that she is alive but not able to see them. It is important to Daniel to be able to stay in the district because it is close to the big house where Frederick lived.

Despite different backgrounds Daniel and Frederick grew up together and became "blood brothers". Daniel, with an almost eidetic memory, could have easily got a scholarship, but had to leave school to work to support his family, while Frederick from a rich family was able to continue his schooling. Despite this separation the two boys formed a bond that was never parted until the end, even when Frederick was officer-in-charge of Daniel's platoon.

Dunmore tells a poignant, sometimes beautiful and elegant and revealing observation of Daniel's recovery from the war and the effect of shell shock, grief and guilt. It is a very sad tale which also encompasses Frederick's sister Felicia, herself widowed by the war, looking after a small child on her own in a huge house who befriends Daniel as a connection to her dead brother.

Daniel has a great memory for poetry and in the days before the big battle he recites part of a poem by Matthew Arnold to Frederick - "Oh love let us be true" .... "Where ignorant armies clash by night" - these messages clearly have a different meaning and importance to each of the blood brothers.

Despite the skilful and sometimes poetic writing, I didn't fully connect with the story and found it slow, rambling, and sometimes a bit obtuse. This may be because my normal genre is more action-packed, page-turning and linear. Those with a greater affinity to Dunmore's writing style will have a better appreciation of this book.

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