Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
Published May 3, 2016
Why I read it: I am a huge fan of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee (a powerful, beautifully-written novel that you MUST read if you have not already). His other books (Incendiary, Gold) aren’t as good, but this, his latest, showed a lot of promise. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List pick, and a LibraryReads List selection for May 2016, and it earned rave reviews. Hoping that it would live up to the hype, I also recommended it as the July selection for my book club.
What it’s about: Set primarily in Britain during World War II, the book follows a cast of flawed characters driven to assist in the war in a variety of ways. There’s the rich and clueless Mary, who signs up for war with visions of espionage and covert ops (but ends up teaching at an elementary school and, later, driving an ambulance). There’s the bumbling but sweet Tom, who runs the schools for the undesirable children still left in London. There’s the witty Alastair, who enlists. And there’s Hilda (an always-the-bridesmaid type), who becomes a nurse. Their intertwined stories show the many faces of war (the creation of enduring friendships, unspeakable tragedies, unlikely bravery).
This is no Little Bee, but it’s easily Cleave’s second-best novel. I was struck while reading by two tremendous strengths that Cleave exhibits as a writer:
- His introduction of characters (especially, oddly, female characters) is phenomenal; and
- His dialogue is really good.
Allow me to give you some examples. The book begins with this glimpse of Mary North:
War was declared at eleven-fifteen 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. Skiing down from Mont-Choisi, she ditched her equipment at the foot of the slope and telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne.
In just a four sentences, so much of Mary’s character is conveyed: she is eager, sheltered, utterly clueless, rebellious, and plucky.
On the novel’s second page, Mary gets her assignment: an address where she must report (“The War Office had given no further details, and this was a good sign. They would make her a liaison, or an attaché to a general’s staff. All the speaking parts went to girls of good family. It was even rumored that they needed spies, which appealed most of all since one might be oneself twice over.”). When the cabbie indicates that the address is for Hawley Street School, with a wink and a nudge, Mary says, “Right then . . . I expect I am to be made a schoolmistress.” (“Because of course they didn’t have a glittering tower, just off Horse Guards, labeled MINISTRY OF WORLD INTRIGUE.”). The reader understands that Mary has been given an assignment as a schoolmistress. But her drawn-out misconception (this goes on for several pages) and silly misinterpretations of the situation paint a vivid picture of a girl who is rich, out-of-touch, and self-important . . . but well-meaning. It’s an excellent introduction both to Mary and to the book as a whole.
As for the good dialogue, here’s an example (there are better examples, but I was very careful not to use an example that would be spoiler-y):
“Be seated. Nothing the matter I hope?”
“Nothing,” said Alistair.
“No aches, pains, unscheduled loss of limbs?”
“I find I don’t much care for seafood.”
“Good man,” said the doctor, inking his rubber stamp.
Holding it poised over Alistair’s paper, he looked up for the first time. “And how’s morale?”
“Mine, or the men’s?”
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
“Morale is fine,” said Alistair.
“France, wasn’t it, and then back across from Dunkirk?”
“Awful little town. Not one fish-and-chip shop.”
“No inflections of mood, no irritability, no anxiety?”
“Any shell shock, jellification of the spine, malingering gotten-tottery?”
The doctor thumbed down his stamp and slid the paper over. “First class. Give this to the C/O when you get back to barracks. I daresay you’ll be posted soon?”
“Looks that way.”
“Good luck. Take quinine if it’s Cairo, take salt it it’s the desert, take precautions if it’s a local girl. Avoid gin unless good tonic is available, smoke no more than one pack, and keep anything made of metal on the outside of your skin. Dismiss.”
“Thank you,” said Alistair, standing.
Alistair hesitated in the doorway. “There is one thing.”
“Yes?” The doctor was fanning the papers on his desk, looking of the next fellow’s.
“A few of the chaps I was friendly with . . . well, they didn’t make it back from France. And now . . . well, I do seem to keep myself to myself, rather.”
“Quite right,” said the doctor. “Take it steady until you feel brighter.”
But Alistair still hesitated, wondering if there was a better way to put it. [. . .]
“The doctor glanced up at him and sighed. “Look, old man, it’s war. There isn’t a pill. Find a sweet girl and forget it.”
That scene also hints at another of the book’s strengths. Cleave manages to mix the terrible with the mundane in a very successful, very British, very terrifying way. He makes clear that, to these characters, war has become the new normal. Life must go on as usual, things must continue plodding along. But don’t get complacent, friends, and don’t forget: we are in the midst of war. Horrible things will happen just when you’ve gotten comfortable. (I’d love to give an example or two of this, but I can’t—those would be far too spoiler-y.)
In addition to these three strengths, the book has some heart-wrenching moments, some touching moments, some funny moments. And there are some great (and realistic—not too happy, not too sappy, a little complicated, a little hot-and-cold) relationships (between Mary and her best friend, Hilda, for example).
There’s a great Author’s Note at the end of the book in which Cleave talks about his grandfather (upon whom Alistair is loosely based) and grandmothers (upon whom Mary is based). Author’s Notes are usually dry and boring affairs that mean nothing to the reader and everything to the author, but Cleave manages to add a bit more depth to the book with these five pages.
So why didn’t I give this a higher rating? Well, for one, because I know what Cleave is capable of, and this isn’t as good. Cleave set the bar very high with Little Bee, and this simply doesn’t measure up. Despite the gravity of the setting, this book and its events don’t hit the reader as powerfully as Little Bee does. In addition, (and this is something we ALL agreed on during our book talk—a rare consensus!) the ending is a disappointment. Without giving anything away, I will simply say that it is anti-climactic and feels unfinished.
Nevertheless, this book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. If you haven’t read Little Bee, read this book first. You’ll like it (and your expectations won’t be as high!).
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- The Girls by Emma Cline: This is one of the books of the summer. ALL the hype. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and the #1 Indie Next List pick for June and on a bunch of best-of summer reading lists (including Publishers Weekly’s list of Best Summer Books 2016). It also happens to be my book club’s August selection.