August 22, 2014

In an excellent novel, a couple’s letters link the horror of the trenches with the hominess of the Kentish farm.

A sensitive and homey World War I novel, “The Care and Management of Lies,” by Jacqueline Winspear, builds on the bridge of letters between an at first ill-fitting farm wife and her husband in the trenches.

Unlike the books in Jacqueline Winspear’s popular Maisie Dobbs series, “The Care and Management of Lies” is not a mystery — although its scenes of World War I trench warfare certainly leave a reader in suspense.

As much a story of the home front as of the battlefield, this new stand-alone novel is, above all, a moving tale about the beauty of those very virtues — fortitude, faithfulness, compassion — that the Great War called into question.

Our heroine, Kezia Marchant, and her best friend, Thea Brissenden, are both teachers, proud of their independence. Indeed, Thea has even begun to risk arrest as activist in both the British women’s suffrage and pacifist movements.

But Kezia, a vicar’s daughter, weds Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm in the Kentish countryside.

As a passive-aggressive criticism of Kezia’s decision to take up the traditional life of a farm wife, Thea presents her with “The Woman’s Book,” a (fictional) guide to basic chores like straining pudding and blacking the stove; in short, “Everything a Woman Ought to Know.”

It turns out that Kezia soon has reason to desperately consult this housewifery guide. Shortly after war is declared, Tom enlists. Dainty Kezia must assume command of the few farmhands left behind, as well as of the horses, laundry wringer, orchards and hops fields.

In credible and often comical detail, Winspear renders Kezia’s transformation from the city mouse to the country mouse that roared. Within months, she’s become adept at twisting the necks of chickens and pulling out their innards, just as Tom must become hardened to seeing the bloody intestines of his fellow infantrymen spill out of gaping wounds.

The worlds of the farm and the trenches are connected via the vivid letters that Kezia exchanges with both Tom and, less frequently, Thea (who’s become an ambulance driver in France).

Tom’s accounts are terse; Kezia, however, serves up mouthwatering descriptions of meals she’s cooking for him (in her imagination, of course), and Tom soon finds himself sharing her culinary epistles with his fellow hungry soldiers. Here he is reading aloud Kezia’s description of making a gravy for baked wood pigeon:

“As you know, Tom, I don’t really care for a plain sauce. … I’d put up a good half-dozen jars of black currants in the summer, and I thought the color of them and their sweetish tart taste would do well with the bird, so here’s what I did. I simmered the pigeon flesh with some best butter. …

“‘I don’t know where your missus gets her ideas from. Mine would never think up something like that.’

“‘Ssshhh! Let ’im get on with the story.’”

Winspear writes with such authority and empathy that readers can’t help but feel that such homey scenes must have taken place. This quietly powerful story more than holds its own in a publishing season crowded with novels and nonfiction commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and teaches literature at Georgetown University.

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War, by Jacqueline Winspear (319 ppages; Harper; $26.99)

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