Finally hitting her stride as a literary novelist, Winspear moves away from the world of Maisie Dobbs in this stand-alone novel of the Great War. Packed with minute period detail, characterization and incident, The Care and Management of Lies has the depth of a much longer book while keeping its scope limited to the confines of a country farm in rural Kent. The author’s uncanny grasp of farm wife Kezia Marchant’s letters of love to Tom, her husband who serves on the Western Front, gives special resonance to the exploration of the interior lives" of Kezia, Tom and Tom’s sister, Thea. As the war rages on, these three characters share a common predicament: disconcerting dislocation from their external existence.
In June 1914, the drumbeat of war is steadily mounting. Kezia travels to London to stay for a few days with her most beloved friend, Dorothy “Thea” Brissenden, at Queen Charlotte’s Chambers. Having known each other since childhood, the women endeavor to re-establish the companionship enjoyed in earlier years. Kezia is about to be wed to Thea’s younger brother, Tom, a kindly, loving, hardworking man who owns Marshals Farm.
With Kezia due to become “the stoker of the Marshals farm’s engine,” Thea has brought her friend a gift in advance of her wedding. Called The Woman’s Book, the publication contains all you might need to learn about being a woman in the home, including a section on cookery. Both Kezia and Thea are well-read and academically adept women, but Kezia’s irritation and sadness at the war’s turn of events leads her to notice Thea’s gradual transformation from solid friend into something more dangerous. Kezia no longer cherishes the well of conversation that was once the hallmark of their friendship.
Ensconced with Tom on the farm, Kezia finds much happiness in the home they build together. The whispers of war might as well be from a different universe. Despite Kezia having few skills to prepare her for keeping a house and being a farmer’s wife, the foundation of their union is Tom’s solid nature and Kezia’s ability to lighten their days. Their trust is well placed, their love is seeded in “the rich soil of mutual understanding.” Apart from an encounter with their handsome, well-heeled neighbor Edmund Hawkes, Kezia sees no one except the farm workers and their families.
Thea, meanwhile, stays in London, attending secret meetings held by the clandestine Pacifist Movement. She’s outwardly appalled at a country beset with strikes and a government preoccupied with “The Irish Question.” Thea thinks that Kezia sees the world through rose-colored glasses. Her dear friend’s naivety festers under her skin as Kezia becomes evermore cocooned in her work on the land. Hiding from a fear of the future that brought them together in sisterhood, there’s a sense that neither woman quite belongs. Something is beginning to scratch at the smooth veneer of Kezia’s new married life. For her part, Thea tries not to think about her brother going off to war “as if war itself was alive too.”
The War affects all four main characters, often at cross-purposes as they explore love and its role in their lives. Intensely introspective and self-conscious, each character shares their thoughts with the reader, allowing us to participate in their inner conflicts. Quietly taking root in Kezia’s heart, the constant talk of war “is like a disease that spreads throughout her body,” a disease culminating in Thea’s decision to work as an ambulance driver on the front lines. Here amid the sodden, and stench-ridden fields, she must learn to live with the sickness of imminent discovery by the authorities, along with the notion that her courage has failed her.
Breathing new life into the personal and social traumas of The Great War, Winspear’s novel juxtaposes the changes taking place in both rural and urban England. Her story is also a testament to her deft, succinct, perfectly molded prose. There's never a false note, nor a misplaced line, or a hollow emotion—which is critical, since the novel almost explodes with suppressed emotion. From Kezia’s kitchen, filled with the fragrant heat of pie blended with the aroma of vegetables, (“a vigil for her spouse”), to the dread that escalates at Charing Cross Station when she finds herself caught among the madness of soldiers setting off toward their platform, there’s a second’s terror and we find ourselves battered and bruised on the front lines, where Tom is about to clash yet again with sadistic Sergeant Knowlesm who wants his “pound of flesh.”
Winspear has really outdone herself in this lovely story of two women and two men who scrutinize their lives and personal needs in an effort to discover something that makes the future worth living. As the narrative weaves in and out, Kezia’s recipes are born out of need and passion. Lives parallel in startling ways as Winspear brings Kezia, Thea and Tom’s stories together in a world where Kezia’s recipes written on paper are concocted from a love born out of war and adversity.