1939 – Europe is at war. In a bid to shock her upper class family, young socialite Mary North volunteers for to help in the war effort. In no doubt that the talents will be quickly deployed into some spy mission on the continent, it is to her great surprise when she finds she has been assigned the role of school teacher. And yet through this role she will meet people, children and parents alike, who will begin to change her whole understanding of not only the war but herself. While neither her parents nor her friend can understand the change in Mary, she Is determined to keep to her promise to be there for the children, in particular Zachary Lee, a young black boy with whom she has struck up an unlikely friendship.
Tom Shaw is an education administrator. He and his best friend Alastair Heath have little in common with those who go to war and yet he is shocked to find that Alastair has enlisted. While Alastair heads off to army training, Tom remains in London, seeking to provide an education to those children to ill or too different to be accepted with the rest of the children who have been evacuated to the country. It is through this endeavour that he meets Mary, and between them romance blossoms, each seeking a kind of solace and reassurance in the other.
For Alastair, things could not be more removed from his former life as an art restorer. From the earliest days of his training, Alastair becomes uncomfortably familiar with the devastating nature of war. When he returns home for one last dinner with Tom, he meets Mary. From that night, as the first air raid hits London, leaving nothing but devastation in its wake, it is clear that nothing with be the same for the three of them. Their hearts are torn, and soon they will come to learn the true cost of the war.
‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ is a beautiful and moving look at the lives of three young Londoners, each of them facing a very different side of the war. From Mary’s almost naïve idealism to Alastair’s blasé attitude towards the enlisting, none of them have any idea of what they are facing. Cleave captures this perfectly in his narrative and through the almost poetic prose, it is very easy to picture the landscapes that he is describing, the different elements of society captured on each page.
In terms of character, with Mary we have a very confident, if somewhat spoilt young woman. Whilst she is more down to earth then her friend Hilda, she is highly principled but very naïve with it. Making a stand for what she believes is right puts her at odds with society, and yet she is also quikc in her downfall, her initial optimism giving way to self-pity and depression. In the long run she finds herself not truly fitting in anywhere.
For Tom, the journey is not nearly so extreme as it is for Alastair. His cause is noble, but seeing how his friend has been changed by the war, he finds himself regretting not enlisting, wondering if having made the sacrifice for the war effort, Mary may love him more. Alastair, however, was a character who grew on me. From the very outset, he seemed as though he was going to be a bit player, a man who was so laid back about war and his training as to be more of an oaf than an officer. However, certain events changed him and as the story progressed, I could find myself feeling more for him, engaged by the way in which Cleave developed his character and his story. In all things, he was concerned only for his men, humbled by their sacrifice and steeled by his need to support. He ultimately became a very sympathetic character.
I have been reading predominantly crime fiction of late, thrillers & mystery, which may be why this seemed to be a little slow in places. Whilst it is wonderfully descriptive, there did seem to be a lot of repetition. This may have been to illustrate each characters internal reflection but it did pull back the pace of the novel. Despite being set in the war, I wasn’t expecting break neck speed, but there were sections where I felt that maybe less may have been more. That said, although I am no expert, it did capture the spirit of the blitz, the devastation of the city, the families trying to carry on regardless, socialites still taking tea at the Ritz, knowing that by the evening they will be hiding in shelters to avoid the next round of bombing. It had the feeling of authenticity, as did the emotional journey the characters went on.
It was a very engaging story. At times I found myself truly moved, my heart breaking along with that of the central characters. There is one scene at the school, the night of a devastating raid that I found myself sitting open mouthed, unable to believe what I read but still understanding that life is cruel, such is the nature of war. But of everything, I think it is the friendships forged, that of Alastair with firstly Duggan and then Simonson, the strengthening of Mary and Hilda’s friendship, and the emotional growth of each character which occurs more in the latter half of the book, which is where the true strength lies.
Beautifully told and evocative. 4 stars.
I was provided with an ARC of ‘Everyone Brave ifs Forgiven’ by NetGalley and publishers Hodder and Stoughton.
‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave is available to order here: