“Everyone Brave is Forgiven” by Chris Cleave; Simon & Schuster; May 2016; 432 pp; $26.99
World War II novels continue to be written and published; there doesn’t seem to be an end to the story lines created by authors, who find stories from a variety of sources and inspirations. Author Chris Cleave used the experiences of his grandfather, who served in England’s Royal Artillery during the siege of Malta in World War II, and his grandmothers — one who drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz and the other who ran her own school and kindergarten — as the inspiration for his new novel, “Everyone Brave is Forgiven.”
Cleave’s book is set mainly in London and begins as England declares war in 1939. Mary North, a passionate 18-year-old English woman attending a Swiss finishing school, decides within minutes of the declaration of war to sign up to help the war effort. She has sights on becoming a British spy but is assigned as a school mistress to replace the schoolmasters who go off to fight the war.
Many of the children from London are evacuated to families in the country for their safety. Mary ends up teaching some of the youngsters who, for various reasons (slow learners, handicapped and children of color), weren’t able to move to the country, and she immediately forms a bond with Zachary, a young black student whose father is a performer in a minstrel show.
School administrator Tom Shaw, Mary’s supervisor, has decided not to enlist, even though his best friend and roommate, Alistair Heath, does. While Alistair is off fighting, Tom and Mary fall for each other, although when Alistair comes home on leave, he meets Mary and they are drawn to each other. Added to the mix is Hilda, Mary’s best friend, who always seems to live in the shadow of Mary.
“Everyone Brave is Forgiven” alternates between London and Malta, where Alistair is stationed. For two years the island is surrounded by the Axis making it nearly impossible for supplies and food to get to the inhabitants and soldiers there. Meanwhile, Mary is doing what she can to help the war effort at home, teaching and later driving an ambulance, delivering injured civilians to hospitals after bombings in the city.
Cleave’s book explores the complexities of friendships with the adversities of war as the background. He occasionally uses letters written and sent by Mary, Tom and Alistair to tell his tale, inspired by the real-life love letters of his grandparents during the war.
The letters in the book, along with some of the dialogue, are often witty and clever, but the devastation and strife of war are never taken lightly. There are harrowing scenes that take place in both London and Malta.
The storyline of “Everyone Brave is Forgiven” is certainly an interesting tale, but what makes it a great read is the beautiful writing. On his website, Cleave states that he begins all his works with a question; this time the question is, “What is true bravery?”
He describes his writing as delving deep into “human psychology, humor and emotion in search of an answer.” Cleave is a gifted writer who is able to illustrate the heartbreak, emotional turmoil and bravery of his characters, while keeping readers thoroughly engaged.
“Everyone Brave is Forgiven” is Cleave’s fourth novel. His second book, “Little Bee,” was a national bestseller and book club favorite. Cleave lives in London. His new book is available in bookstores everywhere, including the St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.