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Book Review: Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

SultanaBun By SultanaBun Published on October 17, 2016

Book lovers like me wade through novels, month upon month, book piled upon book, hoping quietly all the while for a book like this one. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is a great story and exceptionally well told, but more, much more even that that.

Mary North is a young woman in possession of exceptional connections, an expensive education, and a razor-sharp wit. When war is declared in London in September 1939, Mary feels well-qualified for a marvellous adventure, ideally as a spy. Failing to discover ‘The Ministry of Wild Intrigue,’ Mary is somewhat bemused to find herself acting as a substitute teacher to an motley crew of disadvantaged children.

Tom Shaw thought he might give the war a miss. He remains in London as the administrator of 20 moth-balled schools, a scattering of children and, of course, Miss North. From his first sight of Mary, Tom is convinced that marriage is a certainty and instructs his best friend, Alistair, to ‘prepare a best man’s speech forthwith.’

Alistair Heath, a restorer of paintings at the Tate Gallery, has already volunteered. He feels, much as the military do, ‘that getting killed is the least one can do in the circumstances.’ As Alistair packs up for war Tom makes him a parting gift of a jar of blackberry jam. Alistair wishes Tom the best of luck with his new girl and promises to share the jam at war’s end, which will surely come before Christmas.

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These three are as funny, lively and lovable as any characters ever to leap from a page. Their witty repartee shimmers with exquisite poignancy. They will make you laugh and they will make you cry, often simultaneously. 

As their initial excitement gives way to fury and to fear, Chris Cleave’s crisp and gullet-tearing narrative explodes with insight.

‘I suppose we lay flowers on a grave because we cannot lay ourselves on it.’
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That Cleave truly loves his characters is abundantly clear. The author’s note, six pages slipped in at the back of the book, is revealing and endearing in its self-effacing honesty. Cleave writes with naked affection about his grandparents, who shared with him their experiences of surviving the war. It was these ‘titans’ who taught him what it means to be brave.

The author points out that he is acutely aware of belonging to, ‘the last generation of writers who can still talk to people who lived through the Second World War.’ Cleave feels this fact as a keen responsibility. As the survivors of the war slip away, there remains a final opportunity to report their stories, to capture their truth, and to bear witness to their courage.

Cleave speaks with touching respect and admiration of his maternal grandfather. David Hill, like Alistair Heath, volunteered on the day war was declared. Captain Hill, of the Royal Artillery, was stationed on Malta during the harrowing siege of 1941. The writer made an investigative pilgrimage to Malta in search of a starting point for his novel.

‘I switched off my phone,’ he says simply, ‘and slept only in places where my grandfather had been billeted.’

He describes visiting mass graves where up to six bodies were buried under a single headstone because the men struggling to survive on starvation rations could simply dig no more.

Cleave compares the writing of his book to this war-time grave-digging, fearing he could never dig a hole of capacity to do justice to his subject.

‘But perhaps that is the work of a novelist after all – to dig one small hole that must host a great number of men.’

Determined to refine his subject, Cleave felt he should stick to his family’s history rather than ’presume to know the world’s.’

At the outset Cleave intended the reader ‘to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.’ He admits to forsaking such grandiose ambitions and settling upon digging ‘an even smaller hole than that.’

This constant refinement is the trick that makes this book more than just a well-told story. Cleave has chipped and chipped away at hard rock to reveal the shape of perfect truth.

I have only once watched as a grave was made. It was in rural Ireland in the closing days of the last millennium. It so happened that the dead woman’s son was also the village grave-digger. The man took the making of his mother’s grave as an honour.  He worked carefully and steadily until he had excised from the earth a perfectly coffin-shaped hole which would accommodate his mother leaving hardly an inch to spare. The painstaking precision of that hole in the ground was the only monument he could build.

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Just so has Chris Cleave created a true expression of love and respect. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is at once a panegyric, a roof-raising eulogy to the fallen, and a quiet place to lay a wreath, or perhaps a pot of jam, in respectful remembrance of their bravery.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is an exceptional book. Five stars. Not to be missed.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More

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