Before beginning Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, my only previous experience of Chris Cleave’s writing was Gold, which I enjoyed reading, but also thought was lightweight and often overloaded by cliche. Given this, I couldn’t help wondering at first why I’d chosen to pick up yet another book largely set on the British home front during the Second World War, billed as focusing on two young lovers, by a writer whom I didn’t trust to handle this subject-matter well. I’m telling you this because it’s a credit to Cleave’s substantial achievement in this novel that he convinced me so quickly. Without giving anything away, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a book that consistently surprises and grips the reader. Whenever you feel you are on a well-trodden path, Cleave will change the way you are going, without ever sacrificing the integrity of his story for the sake of cheap shocks. And yet, he also simultaneously reinvents familiar scenes – such as the memorable section when two of his protagonists walk through blitzed London for the first time – and makes them feel real and immediate once more.
In September 1939, eighteen-year-old Mary North ‘leaves finishing school unfinished’ and signs up for the war effort. Assigned to the unglamorous duty of London schoolteaching, she meets and falls in love with education administrator Tom, who is questioning his own purpose after his best friend, Alistair, signs up to fight. Mary soon discovers that she does not fit into the prescriptive role of schoolteacher, but forges a real connection with her pupils, especially Zachary, a black boy whose father makes a living performing with a minstrel troupe. Alongside Mary and Tom’s domestic struggles, we follow two other key characters; Mary’s slightly resentful friend Hilda, and Alistair himself, who is eventually stationed at Malta, giving us a vantage point on the wider theatre of war. However, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is not a straightforward love story for any of our protagonists, and in the end it is less about love than what we learn about ourselves under the most testing of conditions. While this isn’t an explicitly gory book, there are three or four especially shocking scenes that I know will stay with me, largely due to the clarity of Cleave’s description and his handling of what seems at times like an especially perverse fate. Tiny accidents have much bigger consequences, putting the reader in the shoes of those who are trying to survive the war while persistently having their destinies taken out of their own hands.
Characterisation is another obvious strength. Brittle, jolly, clever, often too obstinate and occasionally self-centred, Mary isn’t an especially likeable heroine, but I found her consistently compelling. Her relationship with Hilda, who feels she has stood too long in her friend’s shadow, is especially well-drawn, and develops ever greater nuance and complexity as the novel progresses. The connections between these two characters and the two men, Tom and Alistair, are beautifully handled; Cleave pulls off the difficult trick of making their shifting feelings feel organic, without making anyone seem fickle or inconsistent. Responses to trauma are also exceptionally well-done, as each reacts in their own individual way. Even better, Cleave starts Mary in a very familiar place, as a rebel against social norms, but his empathy with her conventional mother as well as with Mary’s own determination to change the world makes this old theme far richer. I had one complaint with this novel, it would be the dialogue. The dialogue is in fact written brilliantly – it’s snappy, often hilarious, memorable, and flows so easily. Unfortunately, these obvious strengths create the persistent flaw of masking the characters’ own individual voices. Exchanges between Hilda and Mary start to sound exactly the same as conversations between Alistair and his fellow officer in Malta, and although their inward worlds are sufficiently well-distinguished to counter this to some extent, I did wonder whether Cleave’s obvious gift for dialogue had led him to get a bit carried away with the clever humour at the expense of his characters.
This is a gripping, genuinely moving novel that was one of my favourites this year. I highly, highly recommend it (and I’ll now be checking out Cleave’s backlist in the hope that Gold was just a blip).