With an arresting title, Chris Cleave’s fourth novel enters the world of wartime London with an unusual intensity. While many writers are caught up with the romance and drama of the Blitz spirit, Cleave takes a far starker view, observing the lives of those who lived in it, and loved in it and who longed to be better versions of themselves. Heavily character-driven, the story is inspired by that of the author’s grandparents, with his grandfather having been stuck in the Malta siege and his grandmother having driven ambulances in London. Yet beyond all of this, we have a novel which is preoccupied by how one’s ambitions and intentions can be thwarted by external events, of how one can mean for the best and still make things worse and of the agonising struggle to fight one’s way back to the person you want to be. While Everyone Brave is Forgiven does deal with a number of themes which are common within fiction set in this period, Cleave seems to have captured a rare psychological realism.
The central protagonist is Mary North, a young girl who enlists for war service within forty-five minutes of its declaration, leaving finishing school ‘unfinished’, running out on lunch time in case her mother refused consent. Much to her disappointment, she is allocated to teaching but soon finds herself taking to the work. The daughter of an MP, Mary North has led a life of privilege and has always had the ability to charm others. To her astonishment however, her new headmistress chooses to leave her behind as the school evacuates, thinking Mary’s high spirits only likely to cause trouble. Of particular disappointment to Mary is the fact that she will now be separated from her favourite pupil Zachary, the only black child in the school, son of a man who works in a minstrel show. Determined to prove herself, Mary approaches the authorities to find another position and so meets Tom Shaw, a young man who is head of the local education authority and despite the gap in social status, the two inevitably become lovers.
In the background, Mary has her best friend Hilda who has proudly never worked a day in her life and wants to meet a nice tall man in uniform, but who is becoming increasingly irritated at how Mary seems to pick off the cream of the crop. The two of them have an uneasy friendship; Cleave repeatedly assures us that they have been friends since they were six but the constant stream of envious jibes from Hilda would surely make her a tiresome companion. It did not help that I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Luke Thompson as somehow the voice he assumed for the female characters had the tendency to make them most of them appear rather shrill. Perhaps if I had read the book on the page, I might have forgotten that Mary no doubt had cut glass vowels but while she was bearable, I did feel that both Hilda and Mary’s mother were rendered ridiculous through Thompson’s interpretation in a way that I am not quite sure was fair. It was a rare occurrence – I had a feeling that I might have enjoyed Everyone Brave is Forgiven more if I had read it in its original format.
More successful is Thompson’s interpretations of Tom Shaw and his best friend and flat-mate Alistair Heath. Heath was an art restorer at the Tate, the steadier of the duo, so that Tom felt rather lost when Alistair announced that he was enlisting. Yet still, as with the women, I felt that Thompson’s narration rather deadened the patter of their banter. We meet Alistair and Tom while they are stuffing their late cat because the local taxidermist has been unable to finish the job due to the constraints of the war – it is a funny scene and yet I felt that reading it to myself would have lightened it further. While Cleave paints the backdrop of war in a way that is pure Elizabeth Bowen, his dialogue and the way in which he has his characters spark off each other is more akin to Nancy Mitford and I am not sure that Thompson was the correct candidate to capture this.
In the security of the Phoney War, Mary is certain that the war will come to nothing, that the raids will never come. She is able to convince Tom to let her teach a tiny class made up of the children left behind, made up of as one character kindly puts it ‘retards, cripples and pariahs’. One of these is Zachary, returned from the country following a violent attack by the local children. So much of Everyone Brave is Forgiven focuses on the ways in which warfare divides us and nowhere is it clearer than here – the running message from the government is that all children must be evacuated, so that these few children – the little girl with Down’s Syndrome, the boy in a wheelchair, the child too traumatised by evacuation to speak, or, worst of all, Zachary – are to be abandoned and forgotten, their worth ignored. Mary’s anger at the way they are treated is Cleave’s anger too, with Zachary observing that in the warfare, not even his own side are on his side – he has to see to himself.
Meanwhile, Alastair has his own struggles, with a particularly unpleasant incident during training telling us early on that he has moved far away from the life that he has known before. A recurring theme within the novel concerns the perils of kindness – Mary’s attempt to care for Zachary causes both of them pain, Alastair’s instinct to protect Dougan and later a fallen German officer cause him trauma and later serious injury. Instinct to reach out, to do better, be better, to be who one was in the past – in Everyone Brave is Forgiven it always seems to lead to more suffering for all. What is noticeable too is how the characters appear to deal with this with a kind of cognitive disconnect. Alastair returns from his first round of combat and finds himself slipping in and out of reality; in one moment he is walking in London, then the next he is witnessing the violence and gore of the retreat from France. This even continues as he attends lunch with Tom and Mary. The stated intention is that he meet and approve of Tom’s new lady but with Hilda invited, the subtext that the two of them might hit it off is clear. Unfortunately, as Mary and Alastair lock eyes, a whole other set of circumstances are unleashed.
During their afternoon out, the first raid begins. It was strange – I have read a fair amount of fiction written during the period but somehow I often found this rather elliptical around the actual sensation of being bombed, the terror of it perhaps too fresh. Cleave manages to capture the shock of it in a way that caught me off guard – one moment Hilda is complaining about it being really rather too bad to schedule drills like this at the weekend and the next minute the ground has shaken and life is forever changed. They are left covered in dust, shaken from their seats, even a far-off impact rattling the system. In another later raid, Mary stumbles in the darkness, wondering distractedly who on earth could have been so foolish as to move the building that she is looking for. With that same disconnect from what she is seeing, she ponders how the man lying down must have fallen asleep due to shock. Later, as circumstances transplant her from teaching to driving an ambulance, she and Hilda move through a bombed-out house, Mary observing the strange stripe in the centre of the carpet, before realising abruptly that it is something quite different. Still, while this may be seen as British stiff upper lip, as the novel carried on I began to see it as a refusal to perceive – that willing disconnect from unnatural events.
Far away in Malta, Alastair tries to keep going throughout the long siege, keeping tight hold of the jam that Tom gave him and determined to save it to be eaten when times are better. His companion is Simonson, a very upper class young man who maintains that same lightness of tone as the other characters. I had never been aware of the Malta siege and the steady creeping grind of starvation makes for truly grim reading, but despite all of this, I think I did find the Blitz to be the stronger narrative, most likely because the setting was more recognisable. The reader can have no confidence in the survival of the four central characters – it is quite clear that they have no idea about what lies ahead of them. They have all come from a land of rules, where their lives seemed mapped out but now none of them will ever be able to return to what they were before. Mary seeks to challenge the injustice which she sees before her, specifically the quite breath-taking racism of her peers, but the havoc she unleashes creates little good for those she seeks to champion. Still, there are the first little peeks of a new world order, with a senior officer’s string-pulling being held to account in Malta – with little good and no food on offer, at least the men can be given fairness.
The enemy within Everyone Brave is Forgiven appears to be the self – Alastair sits in the lorry with his comrades as Dougan is ordered out and he ignores what is happening, desperate to remain inside from the cold. One character longs for oblivion so much that all their principles are abandoned. Mary certainly does not keep calm but she does keep on carrying on. Cleave’s cast shows little nobility in their suffering – at one point Alastair wonders during a raid at what point Tom became such an ass – and rather than warm-heartedly keeping the fires burning, what is most notable is how stubbornly people held on to their prejudices. Mary rages that her home in Pimlico remains untouched by bombing while those in the East End shelter in the rubble. When Zachary is one of the sole survivors of a raid, one of the rescuers comments that it is a shame that the only one spared is the black child. Unlike so many war narratives, people do not find heroism, so that although this is a novel about love, it feels too bleak to be categorised as a love story. With so much having happened, how does one find one’s way back to a time where love even matters? How does one forgive oneself? Rudderless, with that recurring disconnect having separated the characters from each other and their own selves, the fight back to normality will be the hardest fought.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is full of emotion, looking at those who lived through the conflict from an unusual angle. Cleave stated in an interview that his grandparents got engaged and then did not meet again for three years so while the experiences of the characters are heavily fictionalised, I found myself wondering about the journey the two of them must have had to return to each other, both practically and mentally. In an interview, Cleave expressed ‘I think there are two wars we have to win. One of them is against the enemy, yes, but the other is against the tendency of our own society to divide, to polarise, and to fracture’ and the novel concluded without any certainty that this war had been won. Poignant, well-paced and full of compelling and complex characters, this is a story about internal struggles, meaning that an audio narrator felt intrusive – pick up the book instead.
Affiliate LinksBuy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com
Buy on BookDepository.com
Buy from Foyles Books (UK)
Buy from Waterstones
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on May 3rd 2016
This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.