Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

everyone brave is forgivenFrom the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Little Bee, a spellbinding novel about three unforgettable individuals thrown together by war, love, and their search for belonging in the ever-changing landscape of WWII London.

It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.

A sweeping epic with the kind of unforgettable characters, cultural insights, and indelible scenes that made Little Bee so incredible, Chris Cleave’s latest novel explores the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the elite, the embattled. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love, loss, and incredible courage. 

Rating: 4.5/5

A quiet masterpiece.

The first problem of war was that no one was any good at it yet.

I have to admit, while I’d heard of the author before, I had yet to check out any of his books. And then I saw the blurb for this one, and since I’m a sucker for WW2 stories, I put in a request. And I’m so glad I did.

Her mother set to with the hairbrush again. “But would that be so awful, darling? To be the prettiest thing in Brimscombe-and-Thrupp?”

“I should rather die.”

“You nearly did.”

“Yes, but I tend to blame the Germans.”

The writing is so incredibly sharp and witty – but not inappropriately so. It’s the gallows humour of people trying to make the best of incredibly dark and trying times; the banter between friends and lovers; the typical dry British observations.

“Then I’m tempted to die just to … spite him.”

“That’s the spirit that will win us the war.”

I think what really was driven home for me was the author’s focus on the people back home, and the horrors they faced through the near-constant bombings and the sheer lack of resources. Not to undermine what the soldiers went through, but the carnage experienced by ordinary citizens tends to be forgotten.

She walked up into the corridor. The school was absolutely silent. How violent it was, this peace where children’s voices should be.

There is also a major focus on the racism prevalent in the UK at the time – another element which certainly is glossed over, ignored, or simply not considered in retellings of the events at the time.

“Sorry. But it isn’t for us to change how things are. I’m just an administrator. You’re just a teacher.”

“Oh, I hope I don’t teach. Because look what we did: we saved the zoo animals and the nice children and we damned the afflicted and the blacks. You know what I do every day in that classroom? I do everything in my power to make sure those poor souls won’t learn the obvious lesson.”

“If I were you,” said Tom, “I should stick to reading, writing and arithmetic.”

“But what good is it to teach a child to count, if you don’t show him that he counts for something?”

Such is the skill of the writer that he manages to convey such heartbreaking, heart-stopping events with precisely chosen words that cut you to the bone. No dramatics, just finely crafted simple prose that that conveys more than flowery figures of speech ever could.

There in the sweet sacking smell of the mail bags he understood that he was dying, and it pleased him that he was going in the company of so many soft words home.

And then it carries on to the next scene, because such is the nature of war and conflict, and one has to simply pick themselves up and carry on in autopilot because there is no time for reflection, for grief, for processing.

She knew, now, why her father had not spoken of the last war, nor Alistair of his. It was hardly fair on the living.

And the characters are so well-drawn. Flawed, but you can’t help but empathise with them nevertheless.

A waiter put down four dishes of the day, in such a manner that nearly all the gravy stayed in the plates. “Lamb,” he claimed, and took himself off.

Mary prodded at hers with a fork. “Whatever it may have been, its suffering is over now.”

Mary, for instance, is an interesting one, and we get more insight into her character than her male counterparts, at least in terms of the forces shaping her personality and choices. She’s an upper class young woman with a father in the war office, but with a strong moral and ethical code. While trying to fight racism in her own way, she also has what can be construed as a white saviour complex – but it is swiftly pointed out to her by the people she’s trying to help that her very presence can do them more harm than good. And while she comes from privilege, Mary tries to use it for good, but at the same time falls back on it when she needs to.

“Your face us not entirely dreadful to behold, you know,” said Mary, angling Hilda’s head. “You might almost pull of this look, in conditions of very low light.”

“Sadly your flaws as a friend would be visible in pitch dark.”

“You are indolent and asinine,” said Mary.

“You are obstinate and self-satisfied,” said Hilda.

Friendship also takes centre stage in this novel. From childhood friends to comrades in arms;  from the relationships based on years of companionship to those forged under fire of near-death experiences. How wartime changed friendships, and created a gulf between those who left and those who stayed that was almost impossible to breach.

“Did I mention,” said Alistair, “that our friendship means the world to me?”

Simonson only groaned.

“But it does, you know. I’m mildly glad every time you’re not killed.”

Simonson opened half an eye and leered at him. “At last. Meet me in the showers at midnight, and for god’s sake not a word to Matron.”

All in all, the book  provides an interesting commentary on the nature of war, specifically the unpreparedness of so many young people, and how it truly does change a person. How you don’t come back the same. And how entirely fallible we are as humans – walking, talking sacks of meat.

“I suppose we ought to be getting home, in any case.”

“Oh god, is it wartime already?”

“Look on the bright side: it’ll be dinner when we get back.”

It was one of those books where I felt it was a true privilege to read, and thats the highest praise I can give.

One does not rise above the everyday simply because one ought to. In the end I suppose we lay flowers on a grave because we cannot lay ourselves on it…I was brought up to believe everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.

***

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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