Trenchant view on life in and out of trenches

By Carroll du Chateau

Prolific British writer Helen Dunmore. Photo / Corbis
Prolific British writer Helen Dunmore. Photo / Corbis

It is not easy to decide which lie Helen Dunmore was talking about when she titled her new book. Was it the lie told to 18-year-old youths enlisted to fight in the trenches during World War I? Was it the lie told when the fraction of them who survived arrived back in Britain? Or was it the simple lie Dunmore's hero, Daniel Branwell, told his neighbours so he could fulfil the dying wish of an old lady who had taken him in?

Despite Dunmore's clear, evocative writing style that lulls you into her novel like a soothing hot bath, this is a book of layer upon layer of aching sadness. For me, the devastating truth of it all is that it describes how young men, who survived the trenches and rats and inhuman squalor of this dreadful war, were expected to go home and merge into "civilised" life again.

How could they? They, who had painstakingly buried their friends in the muddy soil of France, then watched in horror as those same bodies were blown out of the ground in bits by cannon fire.

After that, burying the old woman in her own garden, where she wanted to be, must have seemed the most civilised thing on earth.

Then there's the overlay of Dan's huge intellect and photographic memory, starved of schooling by the English class system, but learning nevertheless from his friend's father's library.

Throughout the novel, Dan recites poetry, much of it from the Oxford Book of English Verse, to the frustration of Frederick. It's not until he's older that Dan realises that although his friend has the books and the tutor, he doesn't have his gifts.

Daniel turns out to be good with a bayonet, too, and at killing.

The strongest relationship in the book is between the two boys, Dan and Frederick, who meet when Dan's mother works as the family housekeeper. Frederick calls them "the BBs", Blood Brothers. But in pre-World War I small-town England a friendship between the son of a wealthy man and the son of his poor, widowed housekeeper is not done. Nor is it proper to bury an old lady in her own garden.

The Lie, more than any other book I've read, shows us, simply and effectively, what happens to the hearts and minds of those exposed to the horrors of war. Dunmore does it delicately, slicing the story with excerpts from what is probably a rulebook for officers. She adds in the horrors dispassionately: "Rats never eat a body until it's dead."

She describes the ordinariness of day-to-day life with its cups of tea and jokes, except your feet are stuck in mud and tomorrow night they might make you attempt to take a ridge where there's no cover. Last time they tried, 70 men were killed.

There are fascinating examples of camaraderie and men caring for each other, but not the sort usually told in war stories. This is a version of war told from the angle of small kindnesses, everyday survival: "We were paired to look after each other's feet (rub them with grease to ward off the sores, because the soldier boys wouldn't look after their own) ... You'd think selfishness would be the strongest force but it isn't so."

Then, Dan finally makes it back to the village, describing stifling, unwritten small town rules, niceties, gossip; the relief of animals and the wind, rain and sea that just carry on doing their thing.

Throughout all this, Dunmore, with her amazing talent, weaves the wispy threads of her love story, tragedy, beauty and the very humanness of it all, which will probably stay with me forever.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson $27.99).

- NZ Herald

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