The Lieby Helen Dunmore
On the 100th anniversary of World War I, award-winning English novelist Helen Dunmore publishes The Lie, her spellbinding tale of love, remembrance, and deception, set against the backdrop of the First World War.
From the award-winning author of The Siege, Helen Dunmore, comes The Lie, a spellbinding tale of love, remembrance, and deception, set against the backdrop of World War I.
Cornwall, 1920. Daniel Branwell has survived the First World War and returned to the small fishing town where he was born. Behind him are the trenches and the most intense relationship of his life. As he works on the land, struggling to make a living in the aftermath of war, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the traumas of the past and memories of his dearest friend and his first love. As the drama unfolds, Daniel is haunted by the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie. Set in France during the First World War and in postwar Cornwall, this is a deeply moving and mesmerizing story of the “men who marched away.”
“Lyrical and haunting . . . With this novel, Dunmore should rank high among writers like Kipling who explore war, its aftermath, and its lies. At the culmination of The Lie, we are left with a reflection on how war for many soldiers does not end with treaties or returns to bucolic homes and old loves, but continues with the ghosts of those who died on the battlefield always there, haunting them—and us all.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“A piercing look at the long and lingering tentacles of war . . . Dunmore writes with elegant authority, her language crisp and tense.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A poignant reminder that throughout history, the battle is far from over after a soldier returns home. . . . As this impeccable and finely wrought literary tale winds to a chilling conclusion, readers will themselves be haunted by its evocative portrayal of a life-defining friendship and loss.” —Bookpage
“Devastating and triumphant . . . wholly satisfying. Endings are often the hardest beast for an author to tame, but Dunmore does it, with elegance, vigor and clarity.” —The Denver Post
“[A]moving and complex novel . . . Dunmore does a superb job of capturing her lead’s inner torment, even as his story creeps toward a shattering conclusion.” —Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)
“[A] tender tale . . . subtle and enduring . . . A quiet tragedy . . . a poet’s feeling for language shines through the descriptions of the landscape . . . in this novel Dunmore has wreaked tenderness out of tragedy, so that the reader is left with the sense that something beautiful, however fleeting, has been salvaged from the darkness.” —The Observer (UK)
“Heartbreaking . . . the emotional power resonates.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Distinguished by the sensual, compact intensity of Dunmore’s prose, The Lie lays bare on its local canvas the invisible wounds of a global catastrophe.” —Independent (UK)
“The Lie is a fine example of Dunmore’s ability to perceive the long vistas of history in which the dead remain restless . . . It is a book in which ghosts, perhaps, remain imaginary: but they are none the less real for that.” —Guardian (UK)
“Helen Dunmore’s two resources are imagination and research. She’s strong on both counts . . . a very good novel. 2014 is a very good year to read it.” —The Times (UK)
“Visceral and elegantly plotted.” —Daily Mail (UK)
“An enthralling novel of love and devastating loss . . . Powerful storytelling.” —Good Housekeeping (Book of the Month)
“Orange-prize winning author Helen Dunmore explores the relationship between two First World War soldiers: Daniel, who survived, and his childhood friend Frederick, who died, plus Daniel’s ambiguous bond with Fredericks’ sister Felicia. A dark and haunting exploration of grief and guilt.” —Sunday Express, Hot Books for 2014
“Famed for her searing accounts of the siege of Leningrad and its aftermath, Helen Dunmore moves to England after the First World War in The Lie. She chronicles the struggle of a young man without family and homeless amid the quiet landscape of Cornwall, trying to escape his memories of trench warfare.” —Daily Express, Top titles for 2014
“Exceptionally good.” —Western News
“The writing, even at its most harrowing, is suffused with poetry and evocative description . . . a heart-wrenching portrait of psychological crucifixion.” —Literary Review
“An extraordinarily affecting novel . . . crunchingly powerful . . . what’s most heartbreaking about the novel is the hesitant, awkward intimacy between Daniel and Felicia.” —Reader’s Digest
“Exciting . . . the four year wait for this new novel promises to be well worth it.” —The Upcoming.com, Five books to watch out for in 2014
“A stunning, understated novel that breathes with authenticity . . . surely a must for all the prize lists.” —Bookseller
“An enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers’ If you only read one novel in 2014 set during WWI, this must be the one.” —Absolutely West
“Dunmore captures how a single moment can change the course of a life” —Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly, on Ice Cream
by Kirsten Giebutowski
1. Daniel’s covering up of Mary Pascoe’s death is the most obvious lie in the book, but what other lies are told or alluded to? The epigraph to the novel from Kipling reads: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.” How does the story that follows complicate the notion of placing judgment on one who has lied? To what extent do you think Daniel is accountable for his lie?
2. Compare Daniel’s and Frederick’s characters. How is each defined in terms of both who he is and who he is not? How much of Daniel’s character seems shaped by the outward circumstances he was born into? And Frederick’s? What does each of them value? How does Frederick’s letter add another dimension to his characterization (p. 76)?
3. What do we learn about Daniel’s mother, who she was and how she was seen by others? How has Daniel been shaped by his relationship with her? Look at the first few paragraphs to Chapter 9 (pp. 123-4).
4. What do the chapter epigraphs contribute to the story? How do they relate to the text that follows in each chapter? In some instances (as with Chapter 2), the correspondence is literal, but look at the epigraph to Chapter 11 in relation to the text that follows (p. 160). Most epigraphs are drawn from military manuals, but the epigraphs to Chapters 18, 19, and 21 are drawn from poetry (Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). What is the effect of this break in the pattern?
5. From the first chapter, images of dirt and soil feature heavily throughout the novel. What are the various roles these images play? What sort of symbolic value do they take on?
6. Common in military parlance, the word enemy appears in the epigraphs to Chapters 9 (p. 123) and 15 (p. 221). Look at the enemies described in those chapters. Do you think the epigraphs might be so chosen to call into question the legitimacy of the term? Daniel feels more enmity toward the French than the Germans (“We hated the French a hundred times worse than the Germans, because they spent their lives dunning us while we were supposedly fighting for them,” p. 176). Does this seem surprising, or appropriate, under the circumstances?
7. How has Daniel’s disadvantaged upbringing better prepared him for life following the war than Felicia’s privileged one prepared her? What skills and habits of mind did he acquire in early life?
8. When Daniel disturbs a toad in the garden, he looks into its eyes and observes: “They are hooded and ancient. They are the kind of eyes that believe in nothing but what they see in front of them, and maybe not always that” (p. 32). Does Daniel look at the world with a toad’s eyes? How has the war affected his ability to believe what he sees? In relation to this, consider Daniel’s avoidance of crowds and his feeling that “every creature is in disguise. Their skin is a veil to hide the intestines and the raw, slimy flesh within” (p. 33).
9. Is there a mystical aspect to this story? Who else besides Daniel seems to see Frederick? Is there a sense in which Daniel’s visions of Frederick are as significant as his interactions with the live Frederick were? Do Daniel’s imaginings affect his actions?
10. How does Dunmore deepen the novel’s exploration of privilege by bringing Felicia’s aspirations into the story? Does being the underdog socioeconomically make Daniel sensitive to the deprivations of others? How is he critical of Felicia?
11. The First World War gave rise to a great body of war poems, arising out of a culture conversant with poetry in which students were required to learn poems by heart. Does this novel serve as an argument for the value of general acquaintance with poems? What role do poems play in the story? A lover of words, accused by Frederick of being a “blowviator” and using too many of them, Daniel thinks “that maybe you had to have too many, to have any chance of ever possessing what you needed, just as you sowed lettuce seed and then thinned out the seedlings” (pp. 94-5). Do you ever wish you had more words—and perhaps also poems—in your arsenal? The writing in this novel is richly descriptive, particularly regarding landscape—do you find the language itself compelling?
12. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner seems to be a touchstone poem for Daniel. While he’s out working in the garden, lines from the poem come to him, and he thinks that the albatross the mariner kills “was not only an albatross. It was the thing without which you can continue to live, but no longer be human” (p. 54). How does the mariner’s predicament relate to Daniel’s own experience? He goes on to muse: “If you kill the albatross, you can never come back to your own country.” Do you agree? Is Daniel still too young to wield a word like never? In addition to war, what other experiences might distance someone so utterly from their former life?
13. When Daniel tells Felicia, “They say that the dead aren’t tied to one place,” a shiver runs through him, and he thinks: “It’s an awful ecstasy, and it feels like the first true thing that has happened this evening” (p. 81). Is facing up to death necessarily truer than the concerns of ordinary life? Do you think extreme experiences can rob people of the ability to involve themselves fully in ordinary life? Later, as he sits by the fire and waits for Felicia to return from the kitchen, Daniel thinks: “This is the afterlife. This is what we dreamed of, in France. Fire, and four walls, dry feet, a belly warm with food” (p. 150). Do you think the act of longing can be fulfilling in itself?
14. How does the class disparity between Daniel and the Dennis family manifest itself? Daniel is keenly sensitive to it, but how do Felicia and Frederick show an awareness of their difference in standing from their friend? Frederick communicates with Daniel by quoting from the stories Daniel has told him from Kim and Great Expectations (pp. 94 and 187-8). The protagonists of those novels, Kim and Pip, are both poor orphans—why do you think their stories appeal to Frederick?
15. How does Daniel react to Frederick’s arrival in his company (Chapter 12)? He introspects, “I didn’t know how to be all the things I was meant to be, to Frederick, to the others, to the war. It brought me back to myself, and I didn’t want that” (p. 180). How are Daniel’s various senses of identity thrown into conflict? Who is he among his fellow soldiers, and who was he before that, alone but for his friendship with Frederick?
16. Twice, Daniel quotes from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (pp. 183 and 249), and twice is moved by the line about love, whereas Frederick is more interested in the line about armies. How would you characterize the nature of Daniel’s feelings for Frederick? For Daniel, “[Frederick] was always more real than anyone” (p. 188). What makes others less real to him? Daniel thinks, “We were no use on our own, either of us. If I was ever going to be myself, I needed him” (p. 189). How does Frederick help Daniel to be his fullest self?
17. Frederick, Felicia, and Daniel are all misfits of a sort. In what way is each of them born into a role that doesn’t fit? Does each show signs of being able to transcend that? Do some of Daniel’s attitudes hold him back?
18. “They say the war’s over, but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe. Once you fall into it, you can’t get out again” (pp. 271-2). Could this be a summation of what the novel as a whole seeks to illustrate? Bereavement, too, is an experience with an indefinite end. Are there happy experiences that linger as well, and are hard to come out of? What else might open a crack in time?
19. Daniel plays a care-taking role several times throughout the book, and other characters help and care for each other as well. How does the novel explore the hazards and benefits of solitary life versus living in community? How does war change the soldiers’ relationships to each other?
20. In Chapter 5, Daniel has thoughts of drowning himself but regrets that the sea ‘refuses’ to take him and that his own instinct for survival is so strong (p. 58). What has changed by the end of the book? Is it possible that Daniel lied because he felt survivor’s guilt and wanted a reason to be punished, perhaps wanted to die as he feels he should have in the war? In the final paragraphs of the novel, why do you think Frederick appears to Daniel in civilian clothes?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker; Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks; Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves; Strange Meeting by Susan Hill; In Parenthesis by David Jones; My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young; The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West