Book Review: The Lie

Thursday 10 July 2014 by

The Lie, Helen Dunmore, Windmill Books, Book, World War OneThe Lie by Helen Dunmore

Published by Windmill Book

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.


We all know how much I love Helen Dunmore. From the moment I picked up Mourning Ruby (and her children’s series The Ingo Chronicles) it was love. I have devoured all her novels and poetry – the only ones yet to read are her picture books (illustrated by Rebecca Cobb) and wider range of children’s books.

But her last novel, The Greatcoat, went off the boil a little for me. Still enjoyable and still magical, it lacked a certain fizz that the others have always given. Undeterred, however, I picked up her latest novel – The Lie – set in the aftermath of World War I.

As protagonists go, Daniel is a fairly ambiguous one. He’s not particularly forthcoming with information, even with a first person narrative, and you have to figure a lot of it out for yourself, making you work hard throughout what is a relatively short book (a teensy 292 pages). The lie that is alluded to in the title and blurb is never fully disclosed; it could be one of many lies that Daniel weaves. And perhaps that is the greatest part of it – that one lie engenders other lies, until the original lie is indistinguishable from the rest and yet the outcome is the same.

But for me that wasn’t the greatest part of this novel. Dunmore is an expert at writing about Cornwall. I mean, I don’t think I’ve spent more than a handful of days in Cornwall in my entire life, yet it’s as vivid to me as if I had lived there for twenty years. The beauty of Dunmore’s writing is the inexpressibly powerful use of setting (try Talking to the Dead for the perfect summer garden) and once again, this novel is a platform for this evocative place.

But it also lacked that fizz. Much like The Greatcoat, it never quite reached the expectation. In the easiest way I can explain it, Dunmore’s writing has gone from literary fiction to commercial fiction – it has simplified, shortened, modernised; it has lost that poetic lilt that I so loved from her other novels.

In the slew of WWI stories that have arisen in the run-up to the centenary, this is ultimately a different tack. We are not in the trenches, amongst the dead bodies and horror, but rather in the serene aftermath – the bizarre like-it-never-happened existence of a small Cornish village, whose suffering is hidden behind doors rather than shared. Dunmore takes a closer look at post-traumatic stress, grief, and the consequences of silence. It is by no means original, but it is an alternative to the harrowing in-the-middle-of-it stories we read elsewhere.

For me, 292 pages were simply not enough. It was too slow to start and too quick to finish. I wanted more exploration of Daniel’s relationships with both Felicia and Frederick, and longer with Mary Pascoe, the catalyst for it all. It felt like Dunmore felt under-confident in this novel – that she was wary of getting something wrong, or leaving the carefully-planned plot to explore other areas. Although quantity doesn’t mean quality, I feel like if this had been a 400-page novel, it may have had more of those things I have come to love from Dunmore – setting, poetic narratives, and explorations of complex characters.

I will continue to adore Dunmore’s writing (she has never really Let Me Down in the grand scheme of things), but The Lie will not be my favourite. It had the potential of brilliance, but it never got to fly.

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