Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 2016. 424 pp. $27
This novel is hardly the first about a love triangle in wartime, but if it’s not the best of the genre in recent memory, it’s pretty damn close.
Mary North, a young woman at odds with her stuffy London family, hastens home from a Swiss finishing school in September 1939, just after Britain declares war. She wants to “do something,” so she badgers the War Office, assuming that her services must be required, maybe as a secret agent. After all, her father’s an MP, perhaps destined for a cabinet post, so why not? Nobody really knows what the war will be like, but eighteen-year-old Mary is very sure that for her, it will involve duty, freedom, and a ripping lark. In other words, Mary has the makings of an absolutely insufferable, overprivileged twit–and yet she’s quite the opposite.
Two traits save her, in my eyes. First, she’s delightfully subversive, willing to challenge commonly held beliefs in herself and others, and does so with wit and style. Second, she tries to live by her discoveries, working around the rules whenever necessary–a free spirit who becomes increasingly aware how much her ability to be one derives from her wealth and social position.
Mary finds a job as a teacher, where her readiness to see things from the children’s point of view makes her an asset. For instance, the day they’re to be evacuated from London (a war measure), her charges exchange their name tags the moment she turns her back. Being who she is, she pretends that their new names are the correct ones, which amuses them no end. “It turned out that the only difference between children and adults was that children were prepared to put twice the energy into the project of not being sad.” But Mary’s superiors think she’s unfit to teach–too much levity and sympathy, flouting the rules–so they fire her.
Are we downhearted? Only for a moment. Mary lobbies Tom Shaw, an administrator who grants her the use of an abandoned school, where she plans to teach those children shunted back from the countryside, spurned because of their skin color, emotional disabilities, or neediness. Mary throws herself into rescuing these kids and, shortly afterward, into Tom’s arms as well.
Meanwhile, however, Tom’s good friend Alistair, an officer who barely survived the Battle of France and was evacuated from Dunkirk, has come home to London on leave. (Notice the recurring theme of evacuation and rescue, and who deserves it, or doesn’t.) By happenstance, the day Alistair ships out again, Mary brings him his duffel bag at the train station. Cleave, in the simple, elegant prose that makes this novel shine, describes the feeling between them:
She laughed then, brightly and without complication, and he laughed too, and for a moment the war with its lachrymose smoke was blown away on a bright, clean wind. Alistair marveled that she could do such a thing with the tiniest inflection of her mouth and the lightest look in her eye: even exhausted, in yesterday’s dress with her hair disheveled, she could make the distance between them disappear.
Consequently, it’s no secret that while enduring the terrible, grinding, years-long siege of Malta, Alistair thinks of Mary and his friend Tom in different, not always selfless, ways. What eventually happens is anything but predictable, even if it seems so at first, because Cleave is master of my favorite literary device, the “no; and furthermore.” Just when you think things are settled, they’re not–they get even worse–and no one’s off the hook. Some readers may object to the unflinching nature of the narrative, which deals out plenty of pain and leaves quite a few prejudices intact. But I urge you to read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, precisely because these characters earn every drop of joy they get. Along the way, Cleave treats you to terrific dialogue, much of it darkly funny, and pitch-perfect descriptions of new love, intense desperation, and loss. The characterizations feel true in every respect, save one (I don’t believe that Mary’s only eighteen at the novel’s beginning, and she doesn’t act like the virgin she’s supposed to be).
I’ve heard some people call this book same-old, same-old, or too sentimental. Don’t believe them. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a wrenching novel, one of the finest I’ve read this year.
Disclaimer: I received my reading copy of this book from the public library.