There have been numerous novels set during the Second World War but with Everyone Brave Is Forgiven Chris Cleave has written a very special book. Inspired by his grandparents’ experiences during the war it is a story of love and loss and the impact of war.
‘War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon’
The novel begins by introducing us to Mary North, a strong young woman determined to contribute to the war effort. To do so she signs up to be a teacher, overseeing a small group of ‘undesirable’ children who were not evacuated with the rest of their peers. Amongst them is Zachary, a young black boy subject to much prejudice who Mary becomes fond of. The other people close to her include Tom who is both her boss and a love interest and her friend Hilda. All of the characters in the story are memorable and I loved the relationship between them all which was wonderfully portrayed. Also within their friendship group is Tom’s friend Alistair who is posted overseas but despite being physically absent is not far from our characters thoughts. Before long the horrors of war take their toll and with their city under threat they begin to adapt to life at war and surviving all that it throws at them.
‘Perhaps this was what love was like after all…the quiet understanding that one should take a kind hand when it was offered, before all the light was gone from the sky’
Told through snippets of events that happened between September 1939 and June 1942 this is a beautifully written novel that deals with love and friendship and loss during the conflict. I really liked the way the relationships evolved between the characters during these challenging times. In particular I was fond of Mary and Hilda, both of whom are smart, brave women. I enjoyed the witty interactions between the two and it was not a friendship without problems. Hilda is the quieter of the two (at least around men!) and is a little jealous of Mary’s beauty. This causes some tension between the friends, particularly where a certain gentlemen is concerned. The novel also explores love and how it is impacted by war as loved ones are separated and the violence of war threatens to extinguish everything they had ever known.
‘I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.
From the very start I was gripped by their stories and desperate to find out what fate had in store for them. And as the war raged on more and more tragedy struck at home and abroad and there are some harrowing moments within the story as the true horrors of war are played out. The war also leads to the characters questioning themselves and their own contributions and bravery with Alistair’s decision to fight abroad leading to friend Tom agonising over his decision to stay at home. Furthermore, Mary and Hilda look to find a way of making a difference and find themselves in the midst of the turmoil, facing the harsh realities of what war can do, what it can take away and destroy. There are also themes of politics, class and social attitudes with Mary’s dedication to Zachary also being called into question, even from those she holds dear. There are some difficult situations and issues here and this is, at times, a heartbreaking novel, but not one without hope. As our protagonists start to heal from their mental and physical scars we get a glimpse of a future, a life after war.
“Women fall differently, that’s all. We die by the stopping of our hearts, they by the insistence of theirs.”
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was the first of Chris Cleave’s novels that I had read but it will not be the last. It was beautifully written and filled with thought provoking passages that I wanted to read over and over. It is a vivid and powerful portrayal of war and the impact it has that also tells the story of a remarkable group of people and their lives and loves. It is a great book and a fantastic tribute to the loved ones who inspired it.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is to be published on the 21st April 2016 by Sceptre Books. Many thanks to Nikki Barrow at Sceptre for providing a proof copy for review.