Set mostly in London during the Blitz and a besieged Malta, Everyone Brave is Forgiven takes a magnifying lens to the lives of a small group of friends set against the world in turmoil. The novel opens at the start of WW2, Mary North, privileged daughter of a MP leaves her finishing school prematurely to enlist. Imagining she will be put to work as a spy she is initially disappointed to be assigned work as a teacher in a primary school. She does what all indomitable British gals should do though and gets on with it then discovers that she actually enjoys the job and builds a rapport with the children, particularly a black boy called Zachary. Meanwhile Tom and Alistair are room mates in a London garret, trading witticisms, making jam and performing taxidermy on their deceased pet cat. Alistair, an art restorer at the Tate has decided to enlist but Tom, a civil servant in charge of a school district, says he is going to stay at home, "But you’ve said it often: we can’t let them make us into barbarians . Someone must stay behind who understands how to put it all back together."
At first the story seems light but with our benefit of hindsight there is always a sense of foreboding at what is to come. In training Alistair is suddenly and violently reminded of the truth of war. A further hint of some of the darkness to follow comes when the children are evacuated, and Zachary, already in no doubts as to his place at the very bottom of society is horribly bullied and neglected in the country. (The 'n' word is used liberally throughout the novel, along with its scarcely less acceptable cousin, negro. With my 21st Century sensibilities it felt wrong to be reading these words but of course they were common vernacular at the time, and in a historical novel it would be dishonest to omit them.)
Mary meets Tom when she goes to demand another job working with the children not evacuated for various reasons,
'It had been this way for half her class: the countryside had not wanted them. The others had been brought back to London simply because their parents missed them,'
- and they fall in love. They form a foursome on a night out with Alistair, recently evacuated and clearly showing signs of what we now recognise as PTSD, and Mary's friend Hilda. As the Blitz begins, Alistair and Mary are attracted to one another but Mary decides to stay loyal to Tom. Alistair is posted to Malta, soon to be an island under yet another long and deathly siege. We are reminded that war is not just brutal because of bullets and bombs. Starvation, lack of medical care, isolation and boredom all contributed to a terrible toll on the troops who were mostly young men ripped from their normal lives. Meanwhile as the bombs rain down nightly on London, destroying buildings, bodies and hope, the lives of Mary, Tom and Hilda are also irrevocably changed. Much is written of the stoicism of the civilians during the Blitz but perhaps the visceral truth is sometimes skipped over. Here it is acknowledged that the sheer horror drove people to take steps to alleviate the pain, both mental and physical. That needing to be numb was sometimes the only way a person could cope, and that it is no less brave, no less heroic to make bad decisions when faced with what feels like unrelenting misery. The novel ends before the war but the worst of the Blitz is over, America has entered the conflict and there is again the tentative hope reemerging that lives can be patched, that a sense of normality can be regained, 'It was an air one might still breathe, if everyone forgiven was brave.'
World War 2 is of course a well trodden fictional path but when the writing is of this quality there is always room for more. This was a book I both savoured and devoured. One of those books where I would have to reread a passage, not for clarity but because the writing deserved to be appreciated again.
'Aside from the brooms there was silence. London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses. How hadn’t she noticed this? The ageless mechanism of the city’s renewal had faltered. Women only waited now, and swept. Rope cordons ringed unexploded ordnance. Chalk crosses marked the doors that the rescue crews had not yet opened. Mary thought of the mortuaries with their unclaimed dead lying in senseless paragraphs, line after line with an X against each body in the ledger. The point to which she had hurried at the start of the war was gone now, along with all fixed points. Now X marked only the unexploded, the unexamined, the unconsoled. One waited – with the shuffling rhythm of brooms - for some inexplicit resurrection.'
Chris Cleave has written a novel that is so evocatively descriptive I was completely immersed. It is in turns witty, achingly sad, and tense and brutal. The characters are more than words on a page, they are richly developed people, with all their insecurities and flaws. For a short time I was concerned that Mary was going to be given the white saviour role but thankfully Cleave resisted this, understanding that historical racism can't and shouldn't be solved by one character in a book. Instead she is often the conscience of a novel that also examines the class society and gender roles of the time. I've not read any of the his previous books - yet -but I have a feeling I've discovered a new favourite author. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is easily one of the best books I've read this year.
Many thanks to the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton for my copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, received from Netgalley in return for my honest review.