“London, 1939. 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.
Set in London during the years of 1939–1942, when citizens had slim hope of survival, much less victory; and on the strategic island of Malta, which was daily devastated by the Axis barrage, Everyone Brave is Forgiven features little-known history and a perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents. This dazzling novel dares us to understand that, against the great theater of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs that change us most.”
Source: Simon & Schuster.
When WWII comes to London, young Mary greets it enthusiastically; determined to prove her independence from her family and from society’s expectations of a girl of her “status”, Mary enlists in the war effort, at first teaching, then driving an ambulance. While teaching, she meets Tom, an official from the school district who has been exempted from serving in the armed forces because of his position. Meanwhile, Tom’s friend Alastair enlists and is thrust into the horrors of battle. To complete the quartet, Cleave conjures Hilda, a friend of Mary, a more homely girl who is bitter and jealous of Mary’s charm, beauty, and propensity for ‘stealing’ all of her (potential) boyfriends. A love quartet ensues, billed more as a triangle because poor Hilda is just thrown in for good measure and symmetry.
This book will be (already is, pre-publication) a bit hit. I can absolutely see it – the tender story that even in war, even as our worlds are transformed in unimaginable (and sometimes horrific) ways, we survive, and we persevere, in love. Our capacity to care for others and our relationships form the fabric of our experiences and give our lives meaning even as everything we’ve ever known falls apart around us. This is indeed a beautiful, powerful message, with which I do not disagree.
Still, my reaction to this book was quite negative. This is of course influenced by my personal preferences – how much is that, and how much is the book itself, I can’t tell, so I’ll lay out some arguments and let you be the judge of whether this may be a book for you.
This is not a WWII book. This is a war book. WWII is entirely incidental as a setting, Everyone Brave could have taken place during any war. Hitler is hinted at once, there is not one mention of Jews, or of politics, or of something broader than just the daily lives of people living in wartime. This didn’t work for me at all – it makes this book no different than a dystopic fiction that asks about how we develop-and survive through-relationships in end-times… And there is nothing wrong with that, I love that genre! But I read this thinking it would be a WWII book, and I was disappointed on that count.
The structure is episodic. We don’t get a continuous flow of events, but rather snippets – one about Mary in June of one year, one about Alastair the next month, then we see Hilda and Mary two months later. This structure makes sense if one is attempting to cover a large stretch of time without writing the next Forsyte Saga, but not if one is exploring the development of relationships in all their complexity. For example, Mary’s love for both men seemed too superficial – I didn’t believe for one moment that she was in love with Tom, as much as protested it, and she falls in love with Alastair after only meeting him once, during a social evening out as part of the quartet.
The tone is quite light. All the characters banter, trade witticisms, and engage in highly sarcastic dialogue non-stop. Maybe if this was the personality or style of a few characters, I would have bought into this lightening of mood more readily, and I do appreciate intelligent humor (which this was). Still, it seemed a bit too much – this was the mode of engagement between everyone in the book: Mary and her mother, Tom and Alastair, Alastair and fellow soldiers, Mary and her students, etc etc.
I do appreciate the power of humor to create spaces of resistance in difficult times, and dark brooding humor is the primary reason I swoon over Russian literature. But Cleave’s humor is much less powerful, imho, because he is such an optimist, and all ends well as it ends in love – yes many horrible things happen but mostly, the ending is definitely “happy”. And I am pretty adamant in my belief that WWII is not a war that produced happy endings, and it isn’t a war about love. So yeah, a bit put-off. But maybe I shouldn’t be because like I said, this wasn’t a book about WWII.
Everyone Brave is beautifully written and the prose is engaging and intelligent. Cleave is absolutely a masterful writer- his wit is smart without being pretentious, and at times, he makes incredibly profound observations (even if I felt these observations were unsupported by evidence in the story, they were still accurate as applied to the human conditions- and hence, easily identifiable).
Conclusion: A poetic, smart book about life during wartime and about the power of relationships to sustain us. Recommended based on your reaction to this and other reviews.