2016. ebook. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages.
The excellently-titled Everyone Brave is Forgiven turned out to be an excellent novel all the way through, proving that it is apparently still possible to write a worthwhile addition to the oversaturated market of WWII fiction. The book starts off briskly at Britain’s entrance to the war in September 1939. The three main characters are: Mary North, a young upperclass woman who signs up for the war and is assigned to be a teacher; Tom Shaw, an education administrator and Mary’s eventual lover; and Alistair Heath, an art conservator and Tom’s best friend who signs up for the Army. The novel follows the homefront characters (Mary and Tom) through the London Blitz, while much of Alistair’s story takes place at the Siege of Malta, which I admit I knew nothing about before reading this book. The book ends in June 1942, several months after the American forces arrive in England.
I loved Cleave’s writing, especially his handle on dialogue and characterization. There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together. An example passage:
His men headed for the pubs on the back streets behind the station, where the licensing hours had been quietly surrendered. The soldiers would drink ale until dusk and then switch to whisky and fists. They would fight the Navy if available, other regiments if not, and the RAF as a last resort since it was not good form to bother the afflicted.
Occasionally, Cleave’s figurative language was a little over-the-top for my tastes, but that is a small quibble when I consider how invested I became in the story. Cleave crafts some very harrowing scenes which had me spellbound. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing this book.
While the book honors the men and women who faced the war, it is no blind paean. As one character jokes to another in gallows humor: “This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.” Too many lives are lost, among them children. And those with brave and good hearts falter under the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon them.
One of the novel’s plotlines involves the ugly side of the children’s evacuation from London – the children who are rejected and/or mistreated by the homes in the country, often due to reasons of disability and race. There is no Narnian wardrobe, or Bedknobs & Broomsticks adventure for them, no Mr. Tom. Instead, these outcast children are eventually returned to their families in London, into the path of the Blitz. As Mary tells her mother late in the novel, “We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.”
Cleave was apparently inspired to write this book based on some of his own family history. One of his grandfathers fought in the siege of Malta, and was also assigned to be the minder of Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph Churchill. One of Cleave’s grandmother’s drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, as the characters Mary and her friend Hilda do in the novel for a time, but in London. Cleave’s other grandmother had been a teacher.
If you’re curious about this book, I recommend downloading the sample first chapter if you have an ereader. If you like the first chapter, you’ll like this book. It is reading the sample that pushed this novel higher on my to-read list, and I’m so glad I prioritized it.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Farm Lane Books – “This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light.”
Lit and Life: “Cleave’s writing grabbed me and held onto me with its honesty, intelligence, and emotion. More than once, I found myself thinking “oh, please no” and just as often “oh, yes, this.””
RuthAnn (Goodreads reviewer): “Unfortunately, the ending felt a bit flat to me, and the pacing was off, so not a great finish in my eyes. Overall, though, it’s a book that’s definitely worth reading, and I think it lives up to the hype.“