I don’t really remember how this book got on my radar — probably I read an advance review somewhere. I haven’t read Chris Cleave before, but I knew he wrote “it” books that get loads of attention, and I have to admit, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of very popular books. For example, I was not as impressed with All the Light We Cannot See as many people were. So I was a little skeptical of another “it” WWII novel.
But I really liked Everyone Brave is Forgiven in large part because I could not resist Mary North. She’s a young woman from a well connected London family who “left finishing school unfinished” to sign up for war work as soon as Britain declares war. The War Office sends her to a school, which she thinks is a joke or a cover for something more dashing but turns out to be life changing.
One of her tasks is to prepare the children for evacuation, and to go with them. But her headmistress thinks Mary is too familiar with the children, and tells her she’s not a good teacher and must stay behind. Mary is worried about Zachary, an African American boy whose father is in a minstrel show, and writes to him in the countryside. He’s being neglected.
That sets the rest of the plot in motion. Mary goes to Tom Shaw in the Education department and complains about the critique of her teaching and asks to have a school for kids who are making their way back to London because they’ve been rejected — or worse — by their host families. Before long she has a small class, Zachary and some disabled children. And she and Tom see more of each other.
Mary and Tom each have a best friend who also become involved in the story. But it doesn’t devolve into a light hearted romance. In fact, the descriptions of London during the Blitz and then Malta under siege are very bleak, but the view of love is almost as tough: “Tom understood why the good actors in the movies never said it with a smile. To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.” When Tom is despairing about being turned down by the Air Force and also that “it isn’t how it was” between him and Mary she says, “We must take turns, don’t you think? Every time one of us is buried like this, we shall dig the other one out.” I think that’s exactly what love in the midst of crisis is.
And Cleave shows the enormity of the crisis in London very very well. Mary has a keen sense of social justice and she notices all of the disparity that comes into greater focus during the Blitz. But also the despair that finally sets in. At one point when she has reached a personal low, she’s sitting outside and she hears women sweeping: “The hissing of the brooms carried a whisper: that life was cracked and gone. That any life left behind was not the good kind, which stubbornly built on rubble . . . . London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses.”
Tom’s friend Alistair has his own story; he’s a conservator at the Tate and once the art is secured, he volunteers. In the author’s note Cleave mentions that Alistair’s service on Malta is based on Tom’s grandfather’s service there. The horrors Alistair experiences, starting in training and right through to the end of the war, are also well told. They’re awful, but Cleave says he ‘hoped to highlight the insincerity of the wars we fight now — to which the commitment of most of us is impersonal, and which finish not with victory or defeat but with a calendar draw-down date and a presumption that we shall never be reconciled with the enemy. I wanted the reader to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.”
Just as hearing an author always give me a greater understanding of a book, reading this wonderful note at the end helped me like Everyone Brave is Forgiven even more.