I love British things and have a fascination with anything World War II so naturally I was drawn to Chris Cleave’s novel Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Everyone is the tale of a handful of young friends through the first few years of World War II in London and beyond. It has love rectangles, death, racism, smoking, morphine and bombs all in one tidy package.
The novel opens with our heroine, Mary North, going to the war office to volunteer to help almost as soon as Great Britain declares war. Ideally this young daughter of elitist parents would like to spend the war really doing something – especially if it involves espionage and danger! When she is assigned to teach young school children she is disappointed at such a ‘normal’ assignment. But alas, all the young men are out to war and so the children must be taught by someone. When her quirky manner and general affection for those odd students no one wants proves to be a little too much, she is even booted from this job and ends up staying behind while all the “good” wanted children are evacuated to the country side. This is how Mary meets Tom, a young man with no interest in the war and every interest in educating London’s children. After much cajoling Tom hires Mary to teach those children no one in the country saw fit to take in – cripples, special needs, poor, black – and she finds a new purpose in life. And a new love in Tom.
I really enjoyed reading this novel, but then again it hits a lot of points for me. I love reading historical fiction about the war. My grandfathers were both in WWII (one Europe, one Pacific), but we’re American and it’s always interesting to read what it was like to have war on your door step. I like all of the characters that feature heavily in the story (Alastair, Simonson, Hilda, Zachary) as well as the main characters. Mary is fun but naive, brave but selfish, damaged but not broken. Tom is probably the weakest character and I found that not to be a deal breaker. The writing is quite evocative – there is a near drowning scene that I watched in my mind as I read it, claustrophobia setting in and tension taking hold. I think this would in fact make a good movie or at least a great episode of Masterpiece on PBS. Or something on BBC obvs.
I rarely read the author notes that follow a book. If you do pick this one up, it’s worth reading Cleaves’ notes about the inspiration for the book. His own grandfather was stationed in Malta during its 2+-year siege by Italian and German forces. His notes made me regret not pushing my own grandparents to discuss more of their story. My paternal grandfather was shot down over Holland in 1944 and hid for 10 months in various places until he could be safely returned to American soil – all while my grandmother (pregnant and 18!) had no idea where he was and ended up delivering their first born (my uncle) alone. That has always been a source of pride and interest for us, but I never delved into how it was to live it – we as a family just know the facts. It’s insane to me that there is an entire generation out there that is dying off that lived in such a different world from the one in which I will be raising my own daughter. I digress – but WWII fiction usually brings things like this to mind and gets my juices flowing. I guess this is just a reminder that life is precious and fleeting and you should ask your grandparents what their lives were like before they’re gone and you have to resort to speculation and trying to think of a novel plot that you could create around them.