“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”—so says the Gospel of John. But after reading Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, I have to wonder if telling the truth just means the liar exchanges the weight of guilt for the weight of punishment. This is certainly the case for Dan Branwell, a veteran of the Great War who has returned to his rural Cornwall village accompanied by the ghost of his best friend.
It’s not long before we learn that Dan is troubled by his war experiences. He’s able to function when he’s alone. He can tend the farm “owned” by an old family friend, Mary—another solitary soul. He can make repairs, do little errands for Mary, and shift for himself. But on bad nights, he sees the ghost of Frederick standing at his feet. The Lie is not written chronologically, so we don’t know why Frederick keeps coming back until much later in the book. Instead, we first learn about the bond between Dan and Frederick and Frederick’s sister, Felicia. We also don’t learn just how damaged Dan is until much later. At one point in the book, when Dan might have let the sea take him and end his tormented thoughts, he won’t allow it:
But the sea can’t take me far. It’s going out, sucking what it can with it. I move my arms and push myself backwards, towards deeper water, but it’s still not deep enough. It refuses to take me. Even if it did, I would fight it. I would cling and scrabble, as I did before. My mouth and eyes would fill with blood and I would think of nothing but myself. (57*)
This passage also contains a hint about what is truly troubling Dan.
In Dan’s present, he struggles to reconnect with Felicia, but small things will trigger memories. A smell will remind him of the stench of trench mud. The walls of the furnace tunnels will make him feel as trapped as he did when trenches would collapse. He fights again and again to survive the panic, just as he did during the war. The memories of war would have been hard enough for any veteran to deal with, but Dan has a secret that he can barely admit to himself.
Perhaps if Dan had been able to live on his own, he might have been able to stop punishing himself for surviving the war when his best friend didn’t. It would be another several decades before a veteran with the mental scars Dan carries could actually get the kind of treatment and counseling that he really needed. In his time, there was no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Veterans were neurotic or cowards or “troubled.” But on his own, Dan might have been able to process (how I hate using pop psychology terms, but I can’t think of a better word here) his guilt and stop smelling mud and seeing blood and Frederick.
Though relatively short, The Lie is a finely drawn portrait of a suffering veteran. I marked a lot of passages because I was so struck by the truth or clarity of them. Dunmore is a very gifted writer.
* Quote is from the 2014 kindle edition from Atlantic Monthly Press.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give to readers who carry a burden they won’t let themselves drop. Give also to readers who have veterans in their lives they are struggling to help.