Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a shimmering, magnificent novel that takes the all-too-familiar aspects of World War II and magnifies their significance with laser-like precision. It was tempting to read it quickly as I was completely caught up in the story
and the lighthearted banter encouraged my page turning. However, Cleave’s exquisite sentences and the shattering events of the war prompted a more prudent pace to savor every single word and action. Cleave doesn’t simply tell about the war, he makes his readers feel the moral conflicts war imposes on everyone as well as the hope and love that help them persevere.
In 1939, as London ships her children to the countryside to avoid the bombings of the Blitz, eighteen-year-old Mary North begins teaching students that no one in the rural countryside wants. Her upper-class family disapproves of her efforts to educate the left-behind children of color, the disabled, and the otherwise undesirable waifs. Mary’s boyfriend, the affable and kind Tom Shaw, a school administrator, reluctantly supports her efforts and when she’s attracted to his best friend, Alistair Heath, the burden of her guilt exerts a palpable influence over her.
Cleave captures London during the Blitz with word pictures that imbed the reader in the city as he shows how each character meets it. When Alistair arrives in London on leave, he finds an altered city.
He walked north from the station – at noon, by his watch – but no clocks struck. The bells were blanketed in their belfries, to be rung only if the enemy invaded. Such plans were a comfort to civilians, he supposed, although having met the Germans in their present humor, Alistair felt it unlikely that bells would make much difference whether silenced, rung or melted down and made into metal plates for tap shoes.
Mary and her close friend Hilda live charmed lives. Their wealth and friends in the right places protect them from most problems but even they see a different London during the Blitz:
Their road was blocked by rubble, and the driver pulled up. Hilda opened the door, and hot air rolled in, heavy with soot and sewage. Everything smoked or steamed, as if one had crossed into a tropic of disaster. From the gaping fronts of bombed-out houses, the dazed locals stared. Mary stepped out of the cab into a puddle that leached foul smelling mud through her shoe and into her stocking.
Once Alistair departs again to serve on the tiny island of Malta, Mary and Hilda begin work on an ambulance crew rescuing victims of the Blitz. Mary’s stubbornness tears her apart as she corresponds with Alistair and finds herself conflicted in her relationship with Tom. Her attachment to Zachary, a ten-year-old Negro boy she teaches, also brings problems and Tom isn’t entirely sympathetic. Cleave’s words sear the attitudes of the times into the reader:
The smoke was lifting after the night’s conflagrations but the air was still blunt with haze. The sun was a flat white disc. Zachary and Mary walked with arms linked while the people they passed looked knives at them. Mary made sure to smile back brightly. It was simply a peculiarity of the British that they could be stoical about two hundred and fifty nights of bombing, while the sight of her with a Negro child offended their sensibilities unbearably.
Loosely based on Cleave’s grandparents’ lives, the author of the acclaimed Little Bee pens a dramatic, stark, winning novel. (Visit Cleave’s website for a beautiful archive of photographs of the time.) His own grandfather served in Malta, “the most stubbornly defended island on earth” where he was assigned to mind Randolph Churchill, the prime minister’s capricious son. He was to keep Churchill out of trouble. Alistair doesn’t have a Churchill to coddle, but he does serve with an upper-class man whose view of the world needs to evolve. The novel’s title first appears when Mary writes Alistair: “I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.” So, both Mary and Alistair “soldier on” and try to be brave and to forgive themselves as well as those they meet despite the lack of courage they sometimes encounter.
When Mary’s mother talks to her about her reckless behavior in teaching Negro children, Mary accosts her for her lack of honesty, but her mother comes back with “I shan’t rise to that. The young see the world that they wish for. The old see the world as it is. You must tell me which you think the more honest.” The beauty of this book lies in Cleave’s ability to see every character as a nuanced human being trying to be brave despite the consequences.
This is a novel that shows the reader a world in which love redeems even those who make bad choices. It’s a world Cleave envisions when he transforms his title by writing: "It was a world one might still know, if everyone forgiven was brave."
Summing it Up: Everyone Brave is Forgiven is my kind of novel. It shows its readers the world that wartime exposes – a world in which survival often trumps morality and choices are seldom simple. Yet, it’s primarily a novel of love and redemption and that’s why I adored it. This is the book I’d give my parents if they were alive. This is the book my father, who spent the early part of the war isolated in Iceland before he saw action in France and Germany after the D-Day invasion, would feel told the stories of his men. This is the book my mother would have adored for its language, its romance, and its ability to make sense of life.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast/Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Author Website: http://chriscleave.com/
Interviews with the Author: http://chriscleave.com/author-interviews/
Reading Group Guide: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Everyone-Brave-is-Forgiven/Chris-Cleave/9781501124372/reading_group_guide#
What Others are Saying:
The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/everyone-brave-is-forgiven-by-chris-cleave-book-review-unexpectedly-lighthearted-a6993091.html
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-5011-2437-2
Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/review-everyone-brave-is-forgiven-by-chris-cleave/377504931/
Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/chris-cleaves-everyone-brave-is-forgiven-about-love-and-redemption-in-wwii/2016/04/29/73e240ac-0d81-11e6-a6b6-2e6de3695b0e_story.html
Shelf Awareness: “Magnificent and profoundly moving…This dazzling novel of World War II is full of unforgettable characters and the keen emotional insights that moved readers of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.”