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This literary blend of historical fiction and wartime romance places you in wartime Britain, contrasting the fates of the upper- and lower-classes in London during the Blitz, and showing the effects of modern siege warfare on the British army men who occupied the island of Malta from 1940-1942.
Mary North is the first upper-class Brit we are introduced to in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in a very dramatic first few pages – she joined the war effort the day it was declared, leading to her first job, as a schoolteacher. Not what she had in mind at all (as the daughter of an MP), but as she begins work, she realises that she thrives on teaching. Unfortunately, she isn’t quite what the head of the school had in mind either, so she just as swiftly gets let go before the children are evacuated into the countryside, but continues a relationship with Zachary, a little African-American boy who is the only person of colour in her school.
Mary meets Tom Shaw, head of the district her school was in, and persuades him to give her a new group of kids to teach: the ones left behind, and those that were rejected by the host families of the British countryside for being different, or difficult. Mary falls in love with the earnest Tom, who has himself decided to give the war a miss. Tom’s roommate Alistair, however, volunteers early on, and completes his basic training in time to walk backwards out of France with the rest of the British Army. Alistair and Mary meet while he is on leave, during a double date that was for the benefit of Mary’s friend Hilda. Looks are exchanged, plus Mary is the beautiful one, but of course there is the little matter of Tom.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is based on the true story of author Chris Cleave’s grandparents. Both of his grandmothers were in London during the Blitz, and he took elements of truth from the stories of both – one was an ambulance driver at the time, the other got engaged to his grandfather while he was on leave from the Army – to create Mary North. His grandfather was stationed in Malta during the siege, with little hope of survival, and dulled instincts due to starvation rations.
First of all, did the upper-class Officers of the British army really go on like that? Blackadder really didn’t have to look too far for an easy parody, did it? The dialogue between Simonson and Alistair is probably meant to serve a leavening purpose, given they are at that point stuck in Malta for the foreseeable future, with too little food, and no way of getting more thanks to constant air siege, but I did want to throw the book across the room more than once. Perhaps Cleave reasoned that you couldn’t overlook the jolly good fellows, because the British class system is, in essence, why Malta held out for so long – over 180 nights of continuous bombing from the Luftwaffe. That didn’t make the waffle any easier to enjoy.
This story is interleaved with that of our heroine Mary North, the privileged finishing-school student who is eager for adventure during the war. Her relationship with Zachary and latterly the other negro orphans who pitched up at London’s Lycaeum Theatre during the siege was well-formed, if stretching the imagination a little at times. I appreciated the injection of reality coming in the form of one of the senior minstrels from the Lycaeum’s blackface show, telling her to move on, because they were concerned that people from higher up might notice the fact they had a few legally dodgy operations going on there.
I was disappointed overall with this book. I was telling a friend how flowery and over-wrought the prose was at times – there’s even a one-page wondering about what happens to conkers when the children aren’t around to play with them – and she reminded me of Cornelia Funke, who noted during Writer’s Week that when writing for children you don’t get to play around with language – it is pure plot. That is not to say that beautiful writing, and long books can’t be incredible, but the writing in this book wasn’t extraordinary enough to be leaving extraneous description, or wonderings, on the page.
I believe that for every book that one person dislikes, there will be another 1000 people who will love it, given the opportunity to look between the covers. So if the rest of the story sounds fascinating, and you want to peek into areas of wartime London that you haven’t yet read about in fiction, then this may be a book for you.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave
Published by Sceptre