By July 1914, the ties between Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden, friends since girlhood, have become strained—by Thea’s passionate embrace of women’s suffrage, and by the imminent marriage of Kezia to Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm. When Kezia and Tom wed just a month before war is declared between Britain and Germany, Thea’s gift to Kezia is a book on household management—a veiled criticism of the bride’s prosaic life to come. Yet when Tom enlists to fight for his country and Thea is drawn reluctantly onto the battlefield, the farm becomes Kezia’s responsibility. Each must find a way to endure the ensuing cataclysm and turmoil. As Tom marches to the front lines, and Kezia battles to keep her ordered life from unraveling, they hide their despair in letters and cards filled with stories woven to bring comfort. Even Tom’s fellow soldiers in the trenches enter and find solace in the dream world of Kezia’s mouth-watering, albeit imaginary meals. But will well-intended lies and self-deception be of use when they come face to face with the enemy? Published to coincide with the centennial of the Great War, The Care and Management of Lies paints a poignant picture of love and friendship strained by the pain of separation and the brutal chaos of battle. Ultimately, it raises profound questions about conflict, belief, and love that echo in our own time. (from Goodreads)
I expected good things from Jacqueline Winspear when I heard that she had written a stand-alone WWI novel. After all, she's the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, featuring a female detective in 1920s and 30s England whose cases often deal with the after-effects of the Great War on English society. As the Maisie Dobbs series reached its conclusion in its tenth book, you could sense that Winspear had a much bigger story to tell and felt constrained by the detective genre.
Lies is that book and more - it has the feel and passion and assurance of an author who has been saving up her best writing in service of a set of characters. It is my first (and so far only) five star fiction read of 2014 and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Lies does not go in the now-familiar post-modern direction of WWI novels that highlight the nightmarish intensity of battle and the nihilism of the characters caught up in the conflict. I'm thinking of some very fine novels such as Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Wake by Anna Hope.
While I've enjoyed WWI novels that take this angle, I've always felt that its a reflection of how those of us in the late 20th-century/early 21st century view the conflict rather than how the people of that time experienced it. Lies reads and feels much truer to that time because Winspear constructs a straight-forward, third person, past tense narrative. It's almost as if an author of that time is observing the people around her and writing about it.
I absolutely adored this approach - it takes an incredibly talented author to get out of her own way, to resist the temptation to make everything fraught with detail. Instead, I was there with Tom and Kezia and Thea - and that made their suffering so much more real and painful. The characters worry about little things and get on with their own lives while the war goes on in the background. They react to crisis like normal people, not as though they are reacting to History with a capital H (a major pet peeve of mine in historical fiction).
I loved the kaleidoscopic approach -- through a variety of characters, we see the fighting in the trenches and the women back home on the farms and the young women volunteering as nurses and the older chaplains ministering to the dying. We see the little things that matter - the memory of a home-baked cake and the pleasure of receiving a letter from a loved one. I can't think of any other historical novel that gets the domestic details of life back then so right.
Every time I thought that the novel was going to go for the predictable plot twist, it did not. There was so many times when I thought - oh boy, here comes the "surprising" death or the spot where one major character will betray another - because honestly, that's what happens so many times in these types of books. It's almost as if you can hear the author saying - okay, I'm four chapters in and my how-to-write books says I have to "up the stakes" and make these characters do this. Winspear listens to the characters and lets them tell their story.
I will almost certainly be re-reading this book as we start to move through the centennial anniversary dates of the Great War this summer. I can't think of a better tribute to the men and women who lived through that awful time then to revisit the quiet beauty of this novel.
Winspear is giving a reading at the bookstore near my apartment next week - I can hardly wait to meet her and hear more about the writing of this incredible book. I'll be sure to blog about it - so stay tuned!
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.