Everyone Brave is Forgiven, set in London, begins the day war is declared. Nineteen-year-old Mary, wealthy and beautiful, rushes to volunteer. She is assigned to teach, and meets Tom, who falls for Mary. Tom's friend and flatmate Alastair's work evacuating art to safety had ended and he enlists.
The characters endure the Blitz, starvation, maiming, near drownings, and all the horrors of war. I pondered how a writer could put these lovely young men and women, beautiful and witty and charming, through such travails without his heart breaking.
Of course the author's heart broke. Chris Cleave was writing a novel inspired by his own grandparents experiences during WWII. Not that they oft told the stories. Sitting in a movie theater when it is hit by a German bomb and watching your fiance' die is not the kind of memory one willingly returns to.
Cleave visited Malta where his grandfather spent three grueling years slowly starving and watching German attacks kill one friend after another. Cleave was overwhelmed by the sadness of the war. And that emotion carried through in this novel.
There is no nostalgia casting a pretty haze over London during the years of 1939 through 1942. The British are not elevated to an idealized civilization. The pretentiousness of the rich and racism are portrayed. The country folk won't take in evacuated children who are less than perfect. The bureaucracy evacuates the zoo animals before the school children.
We do see the bravery of those at home and in harm's way.
You can read a synopsis of the plot anywhere online. I really don't want to go there. But perhaps if you understand how emotionally this novel has affected me you will understand why you should read it. Scenes haunt me, the beauty of how Cleaves uses words to convey experience is amazing. The story line and characters will catch your attention, you won't want to put the book down. But it is the way Cleave writes scenes that make them memorable.
I will tell you one incident from the book.
At the beginning of the book Tom makes a jar of jam and when his flatmate and friend Alastair enlists Tom gives him the jam. Alastair hoards it hoping to share it with Tom when the war is over. Even when starving on besieged Malta Alastair keeps that jam, a symbol of what life had been and will, hopefully, be again, a concoction of summer and joy and friendship and beauty and all the things that war has removed from life. Alastair's CO Simonson is concerned about Alastair's physical and psychological wounds and sneaks him off Malta. Alastair give the jam to Simonson.
Malta has been besieged for years. The men are starving in a barren, dry land with scant, foul water. They have no ammunition. Simonson wishes the Germans would just make an end of it all. He stares at the paperwork on his desk when his eyes are drawn to the jam, a deep ruby color in the moonlight. Simonson was to keep the jam to share with Alastair at war's end. If only he could just smell the jam; he opens the jar but could smell nothing. Have his senses become dulled by the dust?He dips the nub of his pen in and tries the jam. He is transported. Suddenly the dry and dessicated island is filled with sweet water and green growing plants, stamens shaking with laughter, finches landed on the stems, and Simonson sees his lover's eyes. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever tasted.
We understand everything. We understand that war takes away our memory of the simple joys life can offer. We understand that the war wounded must find their way through the dark waters that have sucked them under and nearly downed them, find the way back to life and love. Everyone forgiven must also be brave, Mary thinks at the end.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair an unbiased review.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Simon & Schuster
Publication May 2016
$26.00 hard cover