The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear (2014)

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” Aeschylus

My dear friend and neighbor Sophia is a fellow book-lover and we have made it our habit not only to recommend books to one another but also to share the books themselves, walking them to one another, back and forth, across the street which runs between our houses. Sophia lent me this book because she knows I am a fan of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books (which I have mentioned here and I am very thankful for the lend. I found the book to be really enjoyable, filled with thought-provoking information about life during World War I for those on the front lines and the home front. Winspear’s research into the years just before and during WWI is extraordinarily meticulous and it fills the book with substance and sense of reality that a less researched novel could not have managed.

The story in The Care and Management of Lies focuses mainly on Kezia, Thea and Tom Brissenden and their neighbor Edward Hawkes. Opening just months before the start of World War 1, the characters lives appear to be laid out before them in a very ordinary manner: Kezia and Tom have just married and will embark on life running the Brissenden farm in Kent. Tom’s sister Thea has a teaching position in London and is enjoying living life on her own away from the demands of farming. Edward is busy running an estate for his recently deceased father. Almost overnight, England declares war on Germany and the nation’s men and women rush to sign up to serve, including Tom and Edward — as a solider and officer respectively — and Thea as an ambulance driver. Kezia, a new bride and “town lass,” who now must manage and work the farm on her own.

The lies told by the characters in this book are not the sordid lies of many twenty-first century novels. There are no extramarital affairs, no murders, no one driven into financial ruin by an enemy. Rather the lies being told by Kezia, Tom, and the others are omissions — words not said and events left unmentioned — done not to deceive but to spare their loved ones pain and worry. Kezia fails to tell her husband that his beloved farm has been plowed under by the government, its livestock taken; Tom fails to tell Kezia of the misery of the trenches, the horror of watching men and boys die day and night; Thea’s joking tone employed to hide the grim reality of caring for injured soldiers; Edward writes to a mother of her son’s heroic death, even if he was shot for desertion. “Just another little white lie” each thinks as they labor over their letters, painstakingly considering what to leave out and what to put in.

In proper British fashion the characters shoulder of the new responsibilities brought on by the war with little complaint, steadfast in their work ethic. Occasionally their anger at the injustice and indignity of war rears up, “Why wasn’t this terrible war being brought to an end? Why weren’t the politicians locked in a room not allowed to come out until they had brought to a halt this boulder of death rolling down hill unchecked, crushing everyone caught in its path?”

The enormity of how much the war has changed their country, their homes, and their lives weighs on all the characters, large and small, in the book. Not one corner of their existence remains unchanged. England, and in fact the entire world, is forced to redefine what is proper and allowable in the face of so much devastation and death.  Most notably in the book is the extremely rapid transformation of the lives of women who had to change in order for the country to move forward: rules about where they could live, what jobs they could hold, even how they dressed and who the spent time with, all had to adapt because there were no men to do the work and so, so much work to be done.

Overall the book was a wonderful read and offered great, if at times breathtakingly sad, insight into the lives of men and women in early twentieth century.


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