From the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Little Bee, a spellbinding novel about three unforgettable individuals thrown together by war, love, and their search for belonging in the ever-changing landscape of WWII London.
It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.
Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.
A sweeping epic with the kind of unforgettable characters, cultural insights, and indelible scenes that made Little Bee so incredible, Chris Cleave’s latest novel explores the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the elite, the embattled. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love, loss, and incredible courage.*
I think this is the first time that I have wished for the ability to give a book more than 5 stars. This story is equal parts hilarious, heartbreaking, and educational. Before the novel begins, the author gives an account of his own grandparents’ involvement in World War II, explaining which aspects of the different characters are based on these real people and including pictures of them in uniform. It is a beautiful tribute to his family and made me fall in love with the story before I even began reading it. It is evident that the novel comes from a very genuine place.
The naivety of the female protagonist is amusing at the start, and makes the changes her personality goes through during the war so much heavier on the reader’s heart. Mary is admirably bold and set on seeking justice at the start; she comes to realize over the course of several years, however, that the world does not conform to one’s expectations of it and one person may only effect so much change. No one came out of this war the same person they were going into it, their convictions and their faith shaken deeply, their perceptions of the harsh realities of the world much sharper.
Cleave paints every scene sharply and clearly, allowing the reader to step into London during the Blitz or Malta during the blockade, without ever making the reader feel annoyed at the level of granularity presented. I cannot remember the last time I actually forgot that I was reading and truly felt like I was living in the world of the novel, but I felt it with this book. My heart fluttered every time the air raid sirens rang out in London or enemy planes flew over Malta.
In addition to confronting the difficulties of wartime, Cleave handles issues of race as well. This adds yet another layer of depth, poignancy, and heartache. Mary becomes close with one of her students, who happens to be a black boy, and the reactions of other Londoners often made me cringe. There is time-appropriate use of racial slurs, which serves as a painful reminder that such feelings existed such a short time ago. Issues of class are addressed as well; Mary and her friend Hilda are from wealthy families, and it is expected that the men they marry will be of the same class. Again, when reading these scenes it feels like the story is taking place in a much more distant past than it is.
Overall, this is a beautiful, poignant story that offers a refreshing perspective on wartime, and race and class issues. It demonstrates the destructions of war on a personal level, sparing none of the characters their fair share of pain and loss. It shows the discussions that become commonplace in times of war–is what I’m doing useful, who should go out into battle and who should stay behind, etc.–and addresses ailments like PTSD (shell shock) and dyslexia/ADD before they had the diagnoses and treatments they do today. I highlighted a quote on nearly every page and am sad to be leaving these characters behind. I’m eager to read more by this author!
*Cover image and synopsis are from Amazon.com. I received a free advanced copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.