Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
By Chris Cleave
(Sceptre 2016) pp438 £14.99 hardback.
Reviewed by Mark Greenstock.(first published in the Sherborne Times)
'War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came, in case her mother said no. She left finishing school unfinished.' This deceptively innocuous opening lets us into the story of a group of ordinary but extraordinary people caught up in the events of the Second World War. There is a double scenario, of the Blitz in London and the aerial bombardment of Malta.
We are not spared the hard details (just as on the BBC News we are currently not spared details of what is happening in Aleppo); but through his skilful handling of a complex plot, his characteristic mastery of irony and dialogue, and the unobtrusive use of comprehensive research, Chris Cleave steers us through an authentic and moving narrative. This isn’t just another book about war, or (for my generation, The War). After reading Everyone Brave I felt the urge to revisit my own memories, which were of events not nearly as dramatic as what Mary, Alistair, Tom and Hilda and their friends had to go through, but which still had their disturbing aspects for a young child growing up on the outskirts of London.
Chris often has children in mind as he writes; one of the ‘heroes’ of this book is the negro child Zachary who can’t be moved out of London to find sanctuary with a family in the country as so many were. The novel is based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents who were in London and Malta during the war. When Chris came down to Sherborne to speak to the Literary Society about his book he asked if he could bring his wife and their young children, who hadn’t heard this story before. It was as though all of us were eavesdropping on an intimate fireside chat of a family who needed to hear a tale they would never forget.
Also listening raptly was a young lady in her early twenties whose grandfather had similarly been caught up in the siege of Malta. It is that quality of empathy that makes the difference between just another potboiler, and a book that a writer has to write from deep inside him/herself. With Cleave, it is a quality also found in his earlier novels Incendiary (2007), The Other Hand (Little Bee in the US) (2010) and Gold (2012). Don’t wait for the paperback to come out – the hardback is marvellous value and Winstone’s may still have some in stock. Or start with one of the other ones.