Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War — Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War
by Jacqueline Winspear
HarperCollins, 2014

If you've read the Maisie Dobbs mystery series set in WWI then you're familiar with the engaging writing of Jaqueline Winspear, a British author now living in California. However, The Care and Management of Lies breaks the mold of her Maisie Dobbs series. It's a "stand-alone" novel, still set in WWI but now involving two old friends, Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden, and Thea's brother Tom Brissenden, a farmer who marries Kezia in July of 1914. The relationship between the two women becomes complicated as war threatens and Thea, now a pacifist and suffragette, resents Kezia giving up her independence to cheerfully strive to become an ideal farmer's wife. As a wedding gift Thea sardonically gives her friend a copy of The Woman's Book (actually written by a Florence B. Jack and first published in 1911). A product of its times, the book gives copious advice on how to be the perfect woman and wife.

The touchy relationship between the two women is only one of several subtle psychological conflicts that run through the book and which Winspear handles with considerable depth and insight. Tom struggles to come to terms with the war and to enlist in spite of being exempted as a badly needed farmer. Being happily married to Kezia, a truly loving wife, makes the decision even harder for him. The constant toil and sweat required to run a farm, especially when young farmhands have gone off to the army and the government has imposed its own requirements on farmers, is a constant theme in the novel.

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Another backdrop for the novel is Kezia's experimental cooking. Starting pretty much from scratch, she learns to cook delicious if rather surprising meals for the men on the farm. Her efforts and recipes are often given enthusiastic and detailed description in the book, leading me to suspect that Jacqueline Winspear herself is an enviable cook. Interestingly, when Tom goes off to war he is able to have vicarious enjoyment of Kezia's meals because in her frequent letters she describes at sensuous length what she would be cooking for him that day had he been home. That Tom's fellow soldiers take great pleasure in listening to him as he reads the descriptions of the meals to them serves ironically to emphasize the lack of good food experienced by the men in the trenches.

The frequent passages on Kezia's cooking appeal most of all to the sense of taste, but the whole novel can be considered a sensual novel in that the author so skillfully calls on all our senses. No writing could illustrate the Western Front of WWI without heavy dependence on sound, sight, and smell, and no wounds or trench life in general could be described without the sense of touch. The author skillfully uses these appeals to the reader's senses to portray an immediate feel for what is going on in combat and within the soldiers' lives. I found that sometimes all our senses were called upon in a single paragraph.

The muted conflict between Thea and Kezia is gradually resolved in the course of the novel, but the conflict between Tom, the army, and the war is another matter. He is endlessly bullied by a brutal sergeant even though he is an exemplary soldier and well liked by his comrades. Anxious to know how these conflicts are resolved — quite surprisingly, as it turns out — is what keeps us reading. As the novel progressed, I found it harder and harder to put down.

The 1911 Book That Inspired  The Care and Management of Lies

How did this novel get its title? I don't know — although I wouldn't go as far as one reviewer did to call the title "unfortunate." It's clear from Thea's early agenda that many, especially the pacifists, consider the war itself to be based on lies, and the commonly voiced assurance that "it would all be over by Christmas" is far from the truth. In the spring of 1915 Kezia is still able to tell herself that Tom will be home "very soon." In the trenches the bullying sergeant twists the facts as much as he can to harm Tom. Letters home to the bereaved tell how their loved one died instantly and painlessly with great bravery — often a far cry from the facts. Even the detailed descriptions of the sumptuous meals Kezia would make for Tom if he were home, although not in any way intended to deceive, allow the tired, dirty, hungry, and often scared soldiers to tell themselves for a few brief minutes that they are not in the trenches but in the glowing warmth of a welcoming kitchen about to enjoy a delicious feast.

Fans of Maisie Dobbs will enjoy The Care and Management of Lies, especially if they are open to a quite different kind of novel by Jacqueline Winspear. Here we are carried along not by the "who dunnit" force of a mystery but by involvement in relationships, the nature of love and separation, sensual culinary imagery, and the ongoing illusion and savagery that war brings. I am not managing to lie when I say that this is a novel well worth reading.

David F. Beer

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