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book cover for The Lie shows a young soldier holding staring at his hat in his hands and a scene of another soldier standing by barbed wire in No Man's Land

Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.1

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

God, I am so sick of publishers using book blurb code for LGBTQ books. There are gay soldiers in "The Lie", OK? This happens:

'We were laughing. He was hauling me up. We staggered together and I could smell the drink on him as well as on me. I felt drunker than I'd been all night. I don't know what happened then except our faces must have got close. I tasted my own blood and then his mouth, his spit and the taste I seemed to know already because I knew the smell of him so well. Him, himself, as if we'd come out of the same womb. How good he tasted. We were no use on our own, either of us. If I was ever going to be myself I needed him.'

Gay soldiers.2

Returning from France to find opportunities for ex-soldiers scarce, Daniel tells a lie which enables him to keep a small plot of land in his hometown which he can live off:

Person of Interest gif shows John Reese saying not every ex-sldier meets a reclusive billionaire

The substance of this lie is the source of most of my problems with Helen Dunmore’s newest novel. The elderly owner of a small plot of land dies while Daniel is staying with her. Daniel buries her on her land rather than calling the doctor. She requests that Daniel not involve the authorities because they might take her away to die in a hospital and then bury her in the churchyard. After she dies, Daniel ill-advisedly accounts for her absence by telling people she is sick and that she can’t leave the house. As you can imagine, when people eventually find out the truth they are suspicious and in the end the lie is his downfall. He is chased to the cliffs by a man-hunt and steps over the edge of a cliff to avoid capture. A hallucination of Fredrick, his dead love, reaches out to take his hand as he goes over the cliff.

>.> There is not enough side eye in the world for this ending.

Daniel’s lie is made in the heat of the moment and, like all hasty lies, is pretty stupid. Daniel knows the lie will collapse in the long run yet, even though he’s bound to be found out sooner or later, he makes no move to leave the village and actually starts to integrate into village life by spending more time with Jeannie, Frederick’s sister. Now, I’m no stranger to stories based around rubbish lies and bad decisions. And I can appreciate that although all reader’s eventually find themselves screaming ‘Use your words!’ at fictional characters, poor lies can still make perfectly reasonable plot devices. People don’t always think clearly and a scared character’s inability to break free from a poor decision by telling the truth doesn’t necessarily mean a story’s construction is flawed. Sometimes people do stupid shit; life isn’t tidy. And like life, plots often contain events and tragedies that could have been overcome with a little more honest conversation.

However, I find I just can’t give "The Lie" a pass for ‘reflecting real life’ with her particular flimsy story construction. The author's choice to have Daniel sentence himself through a foolish lie feels sloppy and careless, like a writer forcibly linking two pre-destined elements rather than genuinely investigating where their story could go. The poor quality of Daniel’s lie is crucial to the outcome of this story and it feels like the outcome, or Daniel’s death, is the reason for this story’s existence. That’s a pretty gross idea when you consider the context of mainstream stories about gay people.

A lot of books kill off gay characters, or start with a man mourning his male partner. The literary world often seems to laud gay character death, or tragedy which surrounding gay characters, as particularly literary. Including dead gay characters seems to almost automatically give a literary novel access to artistic integrity, relevance and a delicate poignancy in critical conversations. This is a lazy form of criticism, linked up with a disinterest in investigating history and the overarching literary idea that tragedy is truth. And I think this critical background encourages a failure of imagination. Novels like "The Lie" start sure that they need to get their gay characters into a certain narrative. That idea of an unalterable plot direction is displayed in the way they knot up their plots with poor cover stories, unfortunate coincidences and sudden accidents. And while these novels may pull out reader’s emotions their construction is usually the poorer for this pushy plotting. I also have a huge problem with a novel introducing a ‘we’ll be together in death’ element into a story about gay characters in love and with Daniel’s story ending in suicide for the similar reasons. We’ve been here too often – just stop it.

Perhaps part of the problem with the plot in "The Lie" comes about because this novel is about inevitability. It aims to show how hard it is to escape war even if you survive it. In order to do so, it presents the idea that WWI created a ‘doomed generation’ who are dogged by problems even when they wash off the French mud and return to England. Fredrick’s death quite literally haunts Daniel. Daniel’s beloved appears at night as a spectre or a hallucination covered in French mud. The history he shared with Frederick occupies all of his thoughts. The inability to escape extends to the young women of the WWI generation; Daniel feels that Jeannie will never leave the town she was born in even though she wants to and has the means to escape. Daniel’s fate is almost set by the themes of the book – to personify this doomed generation he must be caught by the past and unable to build a new life no matter how much he tries. Helen Dunmore uses the flimsy lie as a device to ensure Daniel’s fate, setting him up for death from the beginning of the novel.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking this political stance and reflecting it thematically in a novel - rock on with your anti-war sentiments because I am here for them. However, I have a huge problem with a gay character and his death being used to personify narrative inevitability. The idea that gay people are doomed to tragedy just because they’re gay is an old, pervasive messed up song that people just can’t help humming along to. And while Dunmore’s story never explicitly links Daniel’s sexuality with his death, telling a story which is set up to propel a gay character towards death from the very beginning sub textually reinforces the association between gay characters and inevitable tragedy. Despite growing support and new legal measures to ensure equality in some areas, the LGBTQ community still faces a number of complex challenges. However, no one in that community is doomed to die just because they belong to that community3 and the history of this community is not a monotonous hegemony of tragedy. Our mainstream literature (particularly adult literature) and our mainstream critical culture needs to recognise that and vary up its approach to gay stories.

Lots of people enjoyed "The Lie" and I can see why. Daniel is a sympathetically written ex-soldier with a sensitive feeling for the land and a captivatingly simple way of expressing great emotion. And this is a poignant WWI novel published in centenary year. However, I felt that the theme of narrative inevitability in The Lie tied up uncomfortably with wider, weird narratives about gay life and doomed its wonderful main character to death from the outset. I ended up more angry than charmed, and every time I see John Sutherland praise this novel my back goes up despite its literary quality. Some books just make me angry and there's nothing to be done about that.


1 Emphasis mine.
2 Just want to acknowledge that Jack Harkness is bisexual and both men are in the airforces not the army, but the airman he’s kissing is gay.
3 Although there are many situations where bastards decide to kill LGBTQ people.

Other Reviews

The Telegraph
The Guardian
The Historical Novel Society

Date: 2014-07-11 02:30 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Ugh, I was JUST COMPLAINING about dead gay characters to someone the other day. Or probably several someones -- I was reading a book about The Well of Loneliness (among other things), and it made me think about all the books where the gay characters go crazy or die or both. It's way too common a trope; I think at this point authors need to take a very, very critical look at any intention they may have of writing a doomed gay character and just REALLY THINK about whether that person really has to be doomed.

Date: 2014-07-11 02:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oops, sorry, that was me, Jenny!

Date: 2014-07-11 03:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Gosh, this reminds me of reading The Song of Achilles; I've seen a handful of tumblrinas head over heels for it, while to me it's just not very good boys' love manga dressed up as "literary." I can see why people enjoyed it, but in a larger context, it's just… not good.

Reading this review also made me think of the legacy of the mourned dead lover in queer media. The mainstream has latched onto it because it allows for representation without actually having to show characters doing icky gay things, but there's a precedent for it in queer-produced narratives during the AIDS crisis in the United States in the eighties. I'd have to do a lot more research, but I find the transition between the queer community producing these narratives to rage at AIDS and an uncaring government and the mainstream translating that specter into a way to erase queer content in narratives that supposedly deal with queer characters.

Date: 2014-07-14 03:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
EXACTLY. It was the critical reaction that this was such a bold! radical! story, when it really, really wasn't, in any context.

I think that's definitely a part of it—trying to have your cake and eat it too. But that's not acceptable anymore.

Date: 2014-07-11 04:06 pm (UTC)
thebaconfat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thebaconfat
The mainstream has latched onto it because it allows for representation without actually having to show characters doing icky gay things

This exactly.

Thanks for screening this! I had my eye on this book, but I've had enough sad/dead gay fiction for a lifetime. Glad to cross it off my to-read list.


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