The year is 1920 and Daniel returns to his Cornish village after his wartime discharge from the army. He is badly traumatised by the loss of his best friend, Frederick, blown to bits in No-Man’s Land in France. Daniel’s mother, a widowed cleaner, has died during his absence, and her rented cottage has been reclaimed by the landlord. Daniel, rootless and unemployed, is drawn back to the memories of his childhood friendship with Frederick Dennis – a local boy from a privileged background.
Daniel is befriended by a dying recluse, Mary Pascoe, and builds a shelter in the garden of her secluded cottage. In her last moments, Mary begs him not to call the doctor or allow others to bury her in the churchyard; she wants to be buried on her own land, and for Daniel to take ownership of the cottage. He complies with her wishes:
“ I told no one about Mary Pascoe’s death. At first I didn’t know who to tell. She never went near the church or chapel … If I told the doctor he’d say that I should have called him … Mary didn’t want him anyway.”
To those who inquire about Mary, he tells them he is caring for her and that all is well. So begins ‘the lie’, and one that will have its consequences for Daniel in a community that shows, seemingly, more interest in the death of one sick old women than on the slaughter of millions on the battlefields of Europe.
‘The Lie’ is a novel about social class in a village where the chasm of class divide is wide, and where the social demarcations are forged by the property you own, by your education, and by your occupation. Daniel’s appropriation of Mary’s property raises issues of social jealousy, as well as concerns about the propriety and motives of an unemployed man caring for an older and unrelated women. The issue of social class is strikingly highlighted in flashback at one point, when Daniel remembers a school photograph. His mother has somehow found the money for his inclusion in the group, but is reminded of her poverty when later presented with the image of her son:
“ I was not one of the boys in a Sunday jacket and collar. I was one of the half a dozen who wore mended jerseys and showed no collars below their scrubbed and shining faces. It must have cut her to the quick.”
The defining experience of formal education, rather than intelligence, on social class is writ large in the novel. Daniel, is denied an opportunity to go to grammar school, and has to take employment as a gardener. But he has a thirst for reading, and can remember and quote long passages of poetry. His genuine interest in literature is contrasted with Frederick’s wealthy father, who has acquired a collection of books, not to read, but as a sign of his affluence. Daniel sees the library at his friend’s house:
“I think about the books. I wanted them from the moment I first saw them. Yards and yards of books, in dark red livery, with gold names printed into the spines. Later, I understood that they were bound like that for the look of it, and that Mr Dennis had made a library by writing a cheque.”
This is also a novel about the traumatic impact of war on a village: about loss in general, and in particular on the scarred mind of the returning soldier. Daniel is haunted by his friend and this is made real on occasions by the frightened reaction of a stray dog to the seeming presence of something in the room; Mary Pascoe too, in her dying moments, is also aware of the presence of another beside Daniel at her bedside.
This is a beautifully written story, lyrical in its telling, by the poet and author, Helen Dunmore. Written in the first person, it moves seamlessly between the past and the present, often merging the two, but in a way that realistically presents the inability of an emotionally damaged person to separate reality from fantasy. Daniel’s wartime experiences, for example, blend with a real or imaginary present. These memories are not always harrowing, as Daniel, (we never learn his second name), always the outsider in his village, remembers the comradeship among the ranks as the soldiers care for each other in the face of adversity.
“It was strange for me, since I’d always been separate all my life, off by myself. Here I could forget about that. I had to, and it felt easy.”
Daniel, the private soldier, and Frederick, his officer, are reunited by war. But rank is forgotten on the battlefield as Daniel cradles his badly wounded friend in his arms and tries unsuccessfully to pull him back to safety. His inability to achieve this forces a recognition of the profound love that has grown over the years between him and his now dead friend. And it is this love that will haunt him on his return to post-war England.
‘The Lie’ (2014) by Helen Dunmore, published by Windmill Books.