Published May 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
The day war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up.
Tom Shaw decides to ignore the war—until he learns his roommate Alistair Heath has unexpectedly enlisted. Then the conflict can no longer be avoided.
Young, bright, and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is—bewilderingly—made a teacher, she finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.
Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary.
And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined, entangling three lives in violence and passion, friendship and deception, inexorably shaping their hopes and dreams.
If you ask me if I'd like to read a book set in Europe during the Second World War, I'd likely say "no." It so often feels that there cannot be a stone left unturned in the story of that war. And knowing that any such book it likely to be devastatingly sad, I find it hard to do that to myself. But Chris Cleave won me over with Little Bee so I was willing to take a chance. Cleave has become something of the master of combining humor with crushing sadness.
In Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, Cleave as found a way to bring those elements together in a completely different World War II story. While Mary stays in London, volunteering, she faces the day-to-day hardships of the Blitz but also unexpected racism. Alistair finds himself stationed on Malta, an island that the Axis powers lay siege to for more than two years, trying to break the people on the strategically important island. There is no shortage of the gore and desperation of war here but the emphasis never veers from the characters.
What first grabbed my attention was the witty dialogue between characters.
"Mary frowned. "You are a mousetrap of a friend, all soft cheese and hard springs."And what great characters they are! Filled with kindness, melancholy, jealousy, anger, bigotry, love, hope, hopelessness, disgust, and sorrow. I became so attached to Mary and Tom and Zachary and Alistair that at times I could hardly keep reading, so unable was I to keep "seeing" them hurting.
Hilda beamed. "I use you for practice. One day I'll have a husband."
Mary took a second envelope from the tray. "God help the poor man."
"God will take my side," said Hilda. "He's only human, after all.""
Of course, I couldn't stop reading. Cleave's writing grabbed me and held onto me with its honesty, intelligence, and emotion. More than once, I found myself thinking "oh, please no" and just as often "oh, yes, this."
"Even as she railed, a hollow feeling grew that perhaps life would turn out to be like this. No, after all, the effortful ascent to grace that she had imagined, but rather a gradual accretion of weight and complexity - and not in one great mass that could be shouldered as Atlas had, but in many mundane and antiheroic fragments with a collective tendency to drag one down to the mean."
Cleave's grandmother, Mary
"There in the sweet sacking smell of the mailbags he understood that he was dying, and it pleased him that he was going in the company of so many soft words home."
"I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season."
Cleave's grandfather, David
"The quick bright shock of the light between the cloud and the eastern horizon: an unimagined thing, thought Mary, a life. It was an unscrewing of tarnished brass plaques. It was one tile lost to the pattern. It was a world one might still know, if everyone brave was forgiven."Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is loosely based on Cleave's own grandparents lives during the War. The idea for the novel was given to him by his grandfather when Cleave's grandfather asked Cleave to transcript his handwritten memoir into one computer document. The true story is included in the book as well and is every bit as interesting.