The Lie: Book summary and reviews of The Lie by Helen Dunmore

The Lie
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2014
    304 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

Cornwall, 1920. Daniel Branwell has survived the First World War and returned to the small fishing town where he was born. Behind him lie 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. Above all, 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 post-war Cornwall, this is a deeply moving and mesmerizing story of the "men who marched away".

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Reviews

Media Reviews

BookBrowse Review
Though there are strong points in the novel's favor - language, atmosphere, evocative portrayals of shell shock, character description - it is not a convincing, enjoyable read. 

The story occupies itself with Daniel, who has returned home from WWI, shell shocked and grieving the death of his best friend, Frederick. Daniel's mother died while he was fighting, so he moves in with Mary Pascoe, an old woman who lives on the outskirts of town. Mary's hermit ways appeal to Daniel, and he starts to help her on her small farm. When she dies, he buries her on the hillside. Rather than tell anyone about her death, he lies about her illness and says she is convalescing just fine without visitors. These lies make little sense and this is where the novel grows implausible. Dunmore's descriptions of Daniel's hallucinations from shell shock and his efforts to find a better life after the war are well done, but the fact that the story builds from an implausible foundation makes the rest of the novel seem unwieldy. It doesn't make sense why he lies, why he continues to lie, and why someone whose mother was well-respected and who was best friends with Frederick, the son of the wealthiest man in town, would have any problem explaining that the old woman died before he could get a doctor. 

The fact that he does lie attempts to set him up as an outsider, when there is little in his character history to support this. Again, he was best friends with Frederick and his mother was well-respected before she died. In addition, he rekindles a friendship with Felicia, Frederick's sister, when he returns home. This connection to one of the most respected women in town would only help him to explain the truth about Mary Pascoe, not force him into a lie. Though Dunmore attempts to make him the town outcast, there is not much in his background to support this. This is only the start of the annoying incongruities between character histories and plot. The ending, to provide further example, makes no sense. The town's reactions to Daniel's lie come out of left field. The close of the novel approaches silliness. It seems so misaligned with the rest of the book. 

In addition, Daniel is a tragic soul, but not at all sympathetic. The reasoning behind his choices are unclear, so it's difficult to create a broad sense of understanding about who he is. The novel attempts to explain Daniel's present by flashing back to his experiences in the trenches and his final days with Frederick. Daniel gains some closure from these flashbacks, but it is unclear why or how. 

Though Dunmore's portrayal of a man recovering from the traumas of war is occasionally vibrant and evocative, the novel does not function as a believable, cohesive whole. Other critics have described the novel as "elegantly plotted" and "exceptionally good," but these observations read like throwaway lines in reviews that appear more interested in Dunmore's exploration of shell shock than whether her novel works as an organized unit. As I mentioned above, there are certainly (a few) elements here to recommend this novel, but I wasn't overwhelmed by them, and the novel just simply does not hold together enough in my opinion. 


Other Reviews
"Starred Review. Dunmore does a superb job of capturing her lead's inner torment, even as his story creeps toward a shattering conclusion." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. As the 100th anniversary of World War I approaches, there will be many new books about the conflict. Orange Prize winner Dunmore's sad and searing portrait of a young man shattered by his experiences and haunted by his losses will be one of the standouts." - Library Journal

"Heartbreaking… the emotional power resonates." - Kirkus

"[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)

"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." - 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

"A dark and haunting exploration of grief and guilt." - Sunday Express (UK), Hot Books for 2014

"Famed for her searing accounts of the siege of Leningrad and its aftermath...[The Lie} 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 (UK), Top titles for 2014

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Author Information

Helen Dunmore Author Biography

Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952, the second of four children. She studied English at the University of York and after graduation taught English as a foreign language in Finland.

Helen has written numerous novels, including Zennor in Darkness, which won the McKitterick Prize; Burning Bright; A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize; Talking to the Dead; Your Blue-Eyed Boy; With Your Crooked Heart; The Siege, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002; Mourning Ruby, House of Orphans, Counting the Stars, and The Betrayal, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.

Helen is also a poet, children's novelist, and short-story writer. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and ...

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