If you only read one book published this year, let it be this one. I know that is a BIG statement to make, especially as 2016 has already gifted us so many gems. But Chris Cleave’s latest offering, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, is beautiful, breath-taking, and lingers far beyond the last page.
Mary North is a woman of good breeding, but when war is declared she decides that that doesn’t matter. She signs up for the war effort straight away (much to her friend Hilda’s dismay and her parents’ shock). Though she thinks she would make a great spy, she is instead assigned to be a teacher.
She takes to the job immediately, but as the war continues, London is deemed to be no longer safe for children. Most of Mary’s students are evacuated to the countryside. Some, however, stay behind. These are the children nobody picked up at the train station, or the ones that were sent back.
Tom, the man in charge of hiring the teaching staff, becomes immediately infatuated with strong, beautiful Mary. Meanwhile, Tom’s friend Alistair signs up to fight and waits to be shipped off to the front. Thanks to the war, these characters are thrown together into a World War II tale unlike any other I’ve read before.
It’s Cleave’s emotional connection to the source material of his story that makes this book such a joy to read. Everyone Brave is Forgiven is actually based on the lives of Cleave’s own grandparents and the letters they wrote to one another during WWII.
His lyrical word use and effortless prose are enthralling. His writing is understated (in a fantastic way), and I found myself going back over paragraphs in order to really grasp some of the events that take place.
This is his greatest success in the book. The drama doesn’t occur in your face. It settles around you as if you are also part of the Blitz or partaking in the siege of Malta. I felt completely immersed in the story and barely wanted to lift my head from the pages.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a story of transformation. War is the main driver of these changes, but so are Mary’s choices and strong-mindedness. She’s a force to be reckoned with: clever, determined, and utterly lovely all at once. She doesn’t see lost causes, just opportunities. When teaching becomes impossible, she volunteers as an ambulance driver instead, giving another insight into the destruction and grief of the Blitz.
I loved that this book was not set on the main fighting fronts nor in one of the many occupied countries of World War II. Instead, it is told before, in and after the London Blitz.
Cleave tells of how initially Londoners were so excited to see the first shots light up the sky – the war had begun and wasn’t it glorious! Then he explores the actual horror of the bombing: the feeling inside the bomb shelters, the fear of not knowing where family members are and if they’re okay. He travels to the island of Malta, detailing the relatively unknown (at least to me) siege that took place there.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is beautiful. Just, utterly beautiful. Cleave’s characters are flawed but are flawlessly executed. I didn’t want to stop reading. When I did finish, it left me with a large book shaped hole in my heart.