Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 3rd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Novels about World War II have opened with any number of emotions but I’m relatively certain that Chris Cleave has the market cornered in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, when he begins with eighteen-year-old Mary North gaily volunteering fifteen minutes after Britain declares war on Germany. It will be exciting and a lark! Even after she finds out that all she’ll be doing is teaching little children in London she still views the war as a grand adventure. She is just one of the characters that fill out this surprisingly poignant novel of England’s war years prior to the Americans joining in 1942. Mary is accompanied by her friend Hilda; Tom, who runs the schools, and his roommate Alistair; Simonson, an officer who serves with Alistair on Malta, and Zachary, a child who is one of her students.
It is only when the Blitz begins that the war’s implications become clear. Mary’s students are sent to the countryside; a precaution she finds silly. Desperate for something to do she persuades Tom to let her teach a small group of children that no one would take in, including Zachary, an eleven-year-old Negro whose father works in London as a minstrel. It is at this point that Mary veers from an excusable, giddy charm to dangerously stupid and the resulting consequences impact her and everyone around her. She is well and fully a twit, flighty with the privilege of wealth and yet Cleave doesn’t abandon her to this caricature. Instead, he matures this girl, so frothy she almost fizzes off the page, into a woman with layers and makes us care about her even in our annoyance. Her ongoing relationship with Zachary is one of her unexpected slivers of depth. Despite rudeness all around and racial epithets being the norm, she still looks after him and spends time with him in public.
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.
Cleave splits Everyone Brave is Forgiven into monthly chapters set in London and in Malta, where Alistair is stationed for two years. He achieves the “surprising poignancy” I mentioned earlier by beginning the novel in one tone and with the passage of time flips to another—no easy feat. It is not just Mary who has an unrealistically light-hearted attitude about the Germans. After fighting in Dunkirk Alistair realizes what they are up against
The Germans had had more concentration, more conviction, more force. When one thought of the enemy it was with a queer mix of fear and admiration. It was absurd that one could not simply hold one’s hand up and say: “Look here, well done, I think that will do now.”
Cleave moves this boundary throughout the novel, beginning with Dunkirk where the space between Alistair’s life in the war and Tom’s in London quickly comes to feel grotesque. Later, as London suffers from deprivation and unending bombings that destroy buildings and lives it is still nothing compared to what the troops are experiencing in Malta, an island under siege for two years. This highlights the ignorance of those of us who have never experienced war. That, yes, civilians may be hungry, but it’s because all the food is going to the military; it must be, so they can fight. It took reading The Undertaking and now Everyone Brave is Forgiven, to drive home that soldiers were starving, diseased, half-clothed with no sources of comfort, care or relief.
As months pass the poignancy is in the pain inflicted on every single character regardless of their station in life. Very few in London were exempt, even Mary, the shiny centerpiece of Everyone Brave Forgiven, who opens and closes the novel. Cleave surrounds her with characters and themes that gleam deeply. Zachary doesn’t just exist in his interactions with her, we follow him as he’s evacuated to the countryside where he is bullied, starved and abused and back to London where life is still about hiding and trying to survive. Hilda maintains her party girl attitudes, hoping to marry an officer, until she decides to be a nurse, a choice that changes her irrevocably. And Alistair, who finds a relationship with Mary through their friendly letters even as he is injured and starving to death.
I mended a shirt of yours, even though it is an awful shirt that ought properly to be torn into strips, plaited into rope and used to hang your tailor. (Mary to Alistair)
These letters are one example of the component that made me love Everyone Brave is Forgiven so much. Humor. Divine, dry, British wit. To laugh out loud during scenes from a WWII novel seems disrespectful but it’s only a sign of Cleave’s agile mind. Tom, Hilda, Mary, and Alistair are funny before the war in that wry, British mocking way so is it surprising if the humor slides into the more macabre and even ghoulish as conditions deteriorate? Isn’t it just one more way to cope with the unthinkable?
Alistair and Simonson banter as they become progressively weaker and more ill:
“You know very well we’ll be killed, and I would feel less awful if you were companionable enough to let me die alone.”
“Self-centered of you.”
“Isn’t it? Still, I would consider it a favor.”
“When we first met, you considered me too common to live.”
“Perhaps I have come to see some low merit in the lower orders.”
“This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.”
And Mary and Hilda take after each other as only the closest of friends can:
“You might pull off this look, in conditions of very low light.”
“Sadly your flaws as a friend would be visible in pitch dark.”
Nothing is sacred in their humor—food, living conditions, the Germans, pain, injuries and loss. By the end of Everyone Brave is Forgiven the shine has been rubbed off the humor and grace of Alistair, Hilda, Mary, and the rest of Cleave’s cast, but what is left is the strength of the precious metal beneath the gilt. Insofar as it is a book about the effects of war Everyone Brave is Forgiven is also about the ambiguities of life and how the plans of youth don’t always materialize. Mary begins the novel as a formless, wealthy chit, but the fire of war forges away the silliness, costing her more than she ever thought it would, but revealing her to be more than she ever was.
Now she saw the smallness of it. How vain she had been in her nest, feathering it with mirrors. She was a teacher nobody needed, a daughter whose parents despaired. And now here was Alistair, this man who had stood up to the enemy while she had been so proud of standing up to her mother.