Helen Dunmore: The Lie (2014) Literature and War Readalong July 2014

The Lie

The Lie is not the first WWI novel Helen Dunmore has written. Nor is it her first book about war. While you certainly don’t have to read Zennor in Darkness, or The Siege, or her ghost story The Greatcoat, before you read The Lie, it’s interesting to see how she approaches war from different angles. The Lie is foremost about the aftermath of war. About the scarring, the wounds, in the souls, the bodies, the land.

The Lie is set after WWI in Cornwall. The narrator, Daniel, lives on a forlorn piece of land, overlooking the sea. He’s shell-shocked, but unlike so many other soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, who populate literature, he’s taciturn and withdrawn. Even people who know him, like his childhood friend Felicia, would not be able to tell what is going on inside of his head.

I’ve been quiet a long time, I know that. It happens. I go back in my mind. It’s not the same thing as remembering, because it has colour and smell and taste.

The land on which Daniel lives belongs to Mary Pascoe, an old woman, almost blind and frail, who lived outside of society, far from the town, all of her life. WhenDaniel returns from the war, she let’s him seek shelter on her land. When she becomes very ill and blind, Daniel takes care of her and moves into her cottage with her. She makes him promise not to fetch a doctor and to stay on her land once she’s dead.

He takes care of her until her last moment and buries her on her land. Daniel is an able gardener and can live of the land, whose soil is rich. There’s a goat and hens as well. When people start to inquire about Mary, he tell’s them she’s still alive.  The lie will be his undoing.

The story moves back and forth in time, is interwoven with flashbacks of his childhood during which he was friends with Frederick and Felicia, and flashbacks of the war.

I was green as grass. And there was first aid drill, which was like no first aid I ever saw in France. We had a dummy which kept still and didn’t scream, bleed, or stink of shit because its insides were falling out. They taught us to tie a tourniquet, and apply field dressings, and that gas lies in pockets close to the ground long after you think it’s cleared.

You’d think selfishness would be the stronger force, but it turns out that it’s not so. Tell a man to unwrap his puttees, take off his boots, dry each toe individually, examine his feet for sores and rub them all over with whale oil, and tell him if he doesn’t he’ll get trench foot which will cause his feet to go black and stink and maybe even have to cut off — well, you’d think he’d do it. But he doesn’t. He’s cold and wet and dead beat and all he wants is to get some kip. Tell him he’s responsible for the feet of the man next to him, and he does it.

Daniel fights on his own at first and later, with Frederick. Frederick and Felicia come from money, while Daniel is the son of a poor housekeeper. Frederick’s and Daniel’s friendship is tested often due to these class differences; it ultimately survives, because the attachment is so profound.

During the war the class difference almost splits them up, but their friendship survives even this test. It even survives death. We know from the beginning that Frederick is killed in France. We just don’t know how, but assume that Daniel must have witnessed it and feels guilty, as he’s haunted by his death. And by Frederick’s ghost. I thought it was strange that she chose to write another ghost story, right after The Greatcoat, but this isn’t a ghost story. I read the ghost as a symbol for how deeply rooted the trauma of war is.

All at once I know he’s going to come. The dead aren’t tied to one place. He’s as fearful as I am, more maybe. He knows what’s coming to him, and he can’t get away from it. Something’s gone wrong. Thing’s out to stop, once they’re finished, but this won’t stop. They say the war is over, but they are wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe. Once you fall into it, you can’t get out again. The mud is too deep and it holds you.

Daniel isn’t the only one grieving. Felicia has lost her husband and her brother in the war. When they meet again for the first time, they are both wary. They have changed and are not sure  whether there is more than their connection with Frederick that brings them together, or if there is a possibility of friendship, even love.

The Lie is a poetical story. The flashbacks are so tightly woven into the progressing story that they become part of it. Nothing that Daniel does, doesn’t remind him of the war. When he repairs Felicia’s furnace, he’s transported back to the trenches. When he cultivates the land, and digs in the soil, he’s reminded of the mud in France.

The most beautiful parts are the descriptions of this forlorn country, covered in furze and bracken, smelling of salty sea air and the richness of its soil. But in spite of these beautiful passages, I found the novel and its tragic ending, extremely depressing. And I didn’t get why the lie had such tragic consequences.

 

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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The Lie is the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI memoir Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. Discussion starts on Friday 29 August, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (2013)

Waiting for Wednesday

If you follow this blog you know I’m a fan of crime writing duo Nicci French. Having read the first two in the Frieda Klein series and spotting number four on the shelves of a local bookshop, I had to finally read Waiting for Wednesday. I really like this series, despite the fact that this is the weakest of the three. It’s an in-between book, a warm up for what will come next. That doesn’t mean it’s not gripping, it’s just that there are two plot-lines, which run parallel, and Frieda isn’t really part of the main plot, but investigating something else.

The book starts strong. Ruth Lennox, a middle-aged housewife with an untarnished reputation and a slightly perfectionist streak when it comes to housekeeping, is found brutally murdered. Her smallest daughter, Dora, finds her when she comes back from school. Why would anyone want to kill a perfect mother and wife, a model neighbour? Maybe she isn’t as exemplary as everyone believes? DCI Karlsson investigates this murder, unfortunately not with the help of psychotherapist Frieda Klein, but with another therapist, Hal Bradshaw,  who hates Frieda’s guts. Although Karlsson is told not to use Frieda’s help, he goes to see her anyway, as he senses the assigned therapist is pompous and useless.

Like in the other books of the series, Frieda’s private life takes a lot of space. Her last case with Karlsson has left her wounded and somewhat traumatized. I can’t reveal too much because that would spoil book number two. In any case, she’s not safe. Or will not always be safe and she knows that.

Her home is Frieda’s refuge. She loves her small house in London, but in this book she hardly ever has it to herself, as it’s invaded by friends and family and finally even by the family of the murdered woman because her niece, Chloë, is friends with the oldest boy.

While Karlsson and his team feverishly investigate the murder, Frieda’s rival, psychotherapist Hal Bradshaw, plays a dirty trick on her, trying to discredit her and some other therapists. A minor thing someone mentions in this charade, makes Frieda look for a girl who has gone missing a while ago. During her investigation, her path crosses with that of a journalist who has spent his whole life investigating the cases of missing girls.

It’s typical for Frieda that she puts herself at risk, so, once again, she makes a narrow escape – that’s not a spoiler as book 4 is already out and we know she’ll survive. Frieda’s love life has gained more importance as well, although her boyfriend Sandy lives in New York.

The book switches from the Ruth Lennox case to Frieda’s investigations and her life. Since Nicci French are excellent at what they do, the book felt seamless. It may not have been as gripping as the last, but it sure put me in the mood to grab the next one right away.

I would recommend this book if you like the series, but I’m not so sure how well it works when you haven’t read the first two. Starting with this one isn’t a good option as book two would be seriously spoilt.

Here’s Guy’s take on the novel. 

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

blogger-award

What a surprise. I’ve been nominated twice for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Thank you so much Litlove and Heavenali. I’m grateful and flattered.

The idea behind the award is to pass it on to 15 other blogs and share 7 things nobody knows so far.

I have a problem on both fronts. I will not come up with 15 book blogs because that would mean I’d have to re-nominate many who have already been nominated at least once.

7 things nobody knows so far – well there may very well be a reason why nobody does. :)

So, let’s stick to what’s important. Here are 12 book blogs I’d like to nominate for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy’s probably the blogger who made me buy the most books. I love his choices and the way he writes about them. Crispy fresh writing style and choices that are far from conventional. Plus he’s a writer magnet. I haven’t seen any other blog on which so many writers comment.

Book Around the Corner – Emma is someone who will always write about books with passion and have new insights. Her reviews are never predictable, her choices always interesting.

Pechorin’s Journal – Whether he reads modernist fiction or sic-fi, he’ll always write beautifully and poetically about it.

Babbling Books – I don’t know anyone else who reads huge tomes on history and historical figures and writes about it so well that you don’t even need to read the books for yourself. And you will always find an interesting discussion of philosophical, historical or political topics on his blog as well.

Vishy’s Blog – It’s wonderful when someone loves reading so much and manages to share his enthusiasm. He’s also one of the most diverse readers around. Non-fiction. literary, modernist, crime, YA, fantasy, there’s nothing he wouldn’t read.

Still Life With Books – Violet’s a blogger I admire for her writing style and careful analysis. I always find books I’d like to read on her blog, especially memoir and non-fiction.

Tony’s Book World – If I had to pick a blog and only read what they review, he’d be one of those I’d choose. I just love his choices. The reviews are pithy and to the point.

The Reading Life – There are not many around with so much passion and enthusiasm for short stories and different cultures.

Postcards from Asia – My lovely co-host of some great events. She has a very unique way of writing reviews, very literary.

Buchpost – Quirky blogger who writes in German and English, shares photos and best of book blogging links, which contain great discoveries.

Kaffeehaussitzer – German blog I’ve discovered only recently. He writes thoughtful, in-depth reviews and takes wonderful photos. He’s a man with a mission. If you visit, you’ll find a lot of food for thought and good reasons why we should support Indie bookshops.

Le blog de Mimi – French blogger with an impeccable taste. She reads and reads and reads. One of the most dangerous blogs out there because she makes you discover so much.

 

Each of these blogs is a treat. They are all very different but intelligent and inspiring.

Please don’t feel forced to pass on the Award. Do it if you feel like it, if not – that’s OK as well.

 

Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart (2012)

The Spinning Heart

Irish writer Donal Ryan’s first book  The Spinning Heart is less a novel than a chorus. A chorus of 21 voices telling, stating, deploring, accusing and confessing things that are on their mind, things they want to commit or have committed, things they should have done or could have done. While each of them gives us a slice of individual life, in his or her unique voice, using their idiom or vernacular, they are linked because of the recession that has hit them hard. Most of the professional life in this small rural community was tied to the building firm of Pokey Burke who fled the country, leaving his former employees without pension or income. He’s also responsible for a ghost estate, in which one of the narrators, Réaltín, her little boy, and one elderly woman live. The other houses haven’t been finished and Réaltín’s house has a lot of shortcomings too.

The book opens with Bobby’s voice and closes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. In between are the 19 others. Former workers of Pokey, his father and many more. What struck me the most was that every chapter really sounded as if a person was talking to us. The voices are each so intimate and distinctive. Some focus on the present moment and the recession, some go way back. What we read paints an astounding portrait of Irish society, the things that have been the same for decades, like the weight of the Catholic Church, and those that have drastically changed, like the economy. Some voices are shocking, some are heartbreaking, some belong to very young children, some to old people, most to those who have been the most affected by the recession- people between 18 and 60+.

While all these lives have been marked by Pokey and his real estate fraud, there are also two thin plot lines which link all the people: the abduction of Réaltín’s boy and the murder of Bobby’s father. With these to plots the book transcends the economy theme and encompasses more universal topics like family and relationships.

The Spinning Heart is an amazing piece of writing and I’m not surprised Donal Ryan won the guardian First Book Award. Creating 21 distinctive voices is an achievement but to tell 21 touching life stories and to capture a whole country even more so.

Harriet Lane: Her (2014)

Her

Last year I read Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always and loved it so much that I had to read her new novel Her as soon as it came out. Amanda Craig calls it “Thriller of the Year” and while I might not have read enough of the books that came out in 2014 to confirm this, it’s certainly the best thriller I’ve read so far this year. Take Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met and one of Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers and you’ll end up with something like Her.

Her has a split narrative. Nina tells one half of the chapters, while Emma narrates the other half. Do you ever wonder what people truly think of you? What they might say about you behind your back? Whether they truly like you or just pretend they do? If you have, and I’m pretty sure, we’ve all wondered at some time, this book will resonate deeply with you as Nina is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable character. She does tell us the truth, albeit in small doses, but she’s anything but truthful to Emma.

At the beginning of the book Nina sees Emma in the street, in London. She hasn’t seen her in years, decades even, and is pretty sure that Emma will not remember her. However, Nina remembers Emma because, all those years ago, Emma did something that Nina could never forgive.

At first Nina doesn’t do anything. She just relishes seeing Emma in a bad place, with one small demanding child and a second on the way. She’s not a young mother and the sleepless nights, the demands of motherhood, have taken their toll. She’s not as gorgeous as she once was. And she’s neither rich nor does she have a career, unlike Nina who lives a life of elegance and wealth and is a succesful painter.

Their paths cross again. This time Nina makes contact. What follows is extremely chilling. Nina befriends Emma, is helpful and kind, but we know what she really feels. Unbeknownst to Emma she manipulates, stages disasters that are just small at first but become more menacing every time.

Reading what Nina thinks and does, followed by Emma’s interpretation of the events, made me feel so uncomfortable. I couldn’t help putting myself into Emma’s place and tried to imagine what it would be like being duped like this. Creepy.

The book is extremely gripping because we constantly ask two questions: What did Emma do all those years ago? and How far will Nina go?

What makes this book even more readable is Harriet Lane’s writing. Her descriptions are fresh and elegant. The only thing that bothered me was the depiction of motherhood. I’m sure it’s stressful to have small children but to the extent this is described here?

The end wasn’t exactly what I had expected but I thought it made sense and it shed another, even darker light on Nina.

If you liked Notes on a Scandal or Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers, you’ll enjoy this and appreciate Harriet Lane’s lovely, elegant writing.

Federico García Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba (1936) – A Play

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve read many French and German plays, some British, American, and Russian ones, but only one or two of Spanish origin. Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Literature Month seemed like a good opportunity to change this and I decided to read The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s last play, which he completed just before being murdered by Nationalists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

The House of Bernarda Alba – La casa de Bernarda Alba is set in a village in Spain in the house of the widow Bernarda Alba. Her second husband has just been buried and she decides to close down the house  and impose an eight-year-long mourning period. This means that her five unmarried daughters will lose their freedom and live a secluded life for the next eight years. Bernarda Alba is a joyless tyrant, a crushing, sadistic mother, who uses her Catholic faith as a means to domineer and abuse her daughters. The oldest, Angustias, is already 39 and still not married. She’s the only one from Bernarda’s first husband and has inherited a fortune, while the other four, ranging in age from 20 to 30, are left almost destitute. The two youngest, Adela and Martirio, are both in love with the same man, Pepe el Romano. Pepe seems to be in love with Adela, the only pretty one among the five  daughters. Martirio is jealous and full of hatred. Unfortunately the scheming Bernarda has arranged that Pepe will marry the rich Angustias. As is to be expected the play ends in tragedy.

It’s stifling hot in the play and the heat works as a brilliant metaphor for repressed anger, suppressed desires, sexual frustration, and passions running amok. It enhances the sense of oppression and suffocation the women experience. An eerie element comes from the fact that everyone spies on everyone else at all times and that they all envy each other for one reason or the other. It’s a play that can easily be read as a metaphor for a totalitarian regime. But it’s also an illustration of the crushing power of the Catholic faith and how it can be abused by a sadistic and frustrated person.

This is an amazing play. The dialog is concise and pithy, consisting mostly of short repartees. The only exceptions are the exchanges between Poncia – a servant/confidante – and a maid and between Poncia and Bernarda Alba.

Although men are so important, not one man appears on stage. They are only spoken about and referred to.Browsing on YouTube I saw that a few directors chose to include male actors, which I find very wrong. García Lorca wanted to express something by leaving them out. I wonder why some directors chose to include them? Out of Fear that nobody would want to watch a play with only female actors?

I prefer reading plays but this is one I’d love to see performed. It has been made into a British TV movie (1991), starring Joan Plowright as Poncia, the servant/confidante of Bernarda, who is tied to her mistress by some weird loyalty in which there’s as much obedience as hatred and rebellion. Quite an interesting relationship. I started watching it but this is such a prototypical Spanish play that seeing it performed by British actors was a bit strange. I’ll still watch it some day and  have attached it for those who are interested.

This is my second contribution to Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month.

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque (1999)

El Interior del Bosque

In a guardian article on best crime fiction in English translation Ann Cleeves mentioned Eugenio Fuentes’ novel The Depths of the Forest – El interior del bosque. Since Stu‘s and Richard‘s Spanish Literature Month was upcoming and I’ve never read a Spanish crime novel before, I thought it would be an excellent choice.

The book starts chillingly with the POV of the first victim. Gloria, a beautiful painter, is hiking alone in Paternóster, a remote nature reserve, in Spain. She feels dread but since she’s all alone, there doesn’t seem to be any reason. A few minutes later she’s murdered brutally. This isn’t a spoiler. Her murder is revealed on the bokk cover and happens in the first few pages. The next POV is quite unusual. A rat finds Gloria’s body. The following paragraphs are written from the point of view of a group of young boys who torture scorpions and discover Gloria’s body. The POV switches again, this time we are in the head of Richard Cupido, the PI hired by Marcos, Gloria’s fiancé. Marcos is sure that the Guardia Civil, the local police, are not going to investigate thoroughly and hopes Cupido will find the murderer.

Most of the story is written from Cupido’s perspective but many chapters are told from the point of view of the many suspects. When a second woman is murdered there are even more suspects. In spite of these many different perspectives, the book didn’t feel disjointed.

Most of the men who came in contact with Gloria fell in love with her. And it seems that she had affairs with most of them. Was it a crime of passion? Or has it something to do with an ongoing lawsuit? El Paternóster used to belong to a rich widow who has been fighting to get it back for years. Did she take drastic measures to discourage the public from visiting?

Cupido turns in circles for a long time. He gathers information but it’s leading nowhere. And he becomes obsessed with Gloria himself.

Having finished the novel, I’m facing a huge dilemma. I want to be fair to a novel, which is clearly on the literary side of the crime spectrum, and would most certainly delight many readers, but at the same time I have to admit that this wasn’t for me. Not because it wasn’t good but because it contained a recurring scene of an act of cruelty against an animal (a deer) that made me sick. I skipped most of the parts but still read too much for my own liking. It wasn’t a gratuitous scene but nevertheless, I wonder why an author chooses to include scenes like this. I think this is too bad because if those scenes hadn’t been included I would have liked this book. I thought that all the aspects about nature and how people value it in different ways was thought-provoking and topical. From the nature theme we’re lead to think about human nature. Clearly, the cruelty is part of these explorations. Cupido is a complex character and most of the other character studies were quite fascinating too. The way Fuentes captured this nature reserve and its remoteness, was very well done. Fascinating and eerie at the same time. And I really wanted to find out who killed those women. But overall the novel was too pessimistic for my own liking. While I agree that humans are the most cruel animals in this world, I don’t want to read about it in this way. Or Nnot if illustrating this point includes scenes with cruelty against animals. If this doesn’t bother you and you like your crime novels unusual, literary and very bleak – don’t miss this.

This is my first contribution to Spanish Literature Month hosted by Stu and Richard.

The Depths of the Forest