Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Two novels I’ve read in the past year stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The first is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, published in 1967. The only surprise here, if you know my literary tastes, is that it took me nearly half a century to pick up and read this classic exploration of religious life. There are certain gaps in my literary experience, I readily admit — but this is no longer one of them.

(Another conspicuous gap is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). I know it is had for both good and evil, and was banned within my lifetime in a certain Washington school district for being part of a communist plot. All the same, a young writer I met at lunch a few weeks ago talked me into reading it sooner rather than later. I’m too old, among other things, to be drawn to it for its rebellion and teenage angst, but it has other charms. After reading just the first two pages, I’m inclined to appreciate — and to study — the first-person narrative voice. But I digress.)

The second highlight of this year’s novel-reading is Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, first released not five months ago. Cleave’s first three novels, which I haven’t read, were well received and have contemporary settings. This fourth offering is historical fiction, set in England and Malta during the early years of World War II — mostly before the United States joined the conflagration in December 1941.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, Chris Cleave

This book is delightful but substantial reading. Though often light-hearted, at times it is grimly realistic and personal about the physical, emotional, and moral horrors of war. It has some thoughts on race and class, but (thankfully) isn’t heavy-handed about them. This virtue displeased the subset of reviewers who declare even a brilliant novel disappointing, if it does not bludgeon the reader with proper and comprehensive modern views of any social issues it happens to touch.

Heaven forfend. People are more than social issues. In fiction I much prefer compelling, realistic characters to fashionable ideologies.

Perhaps affected by LDS fiction of the wrong caliber, and certainly influenced even more by too much study of Socialist Realism, I prefer my novels to invite me to think on serious things, but not to micromanage the process or force the result. It’s fine with me if the author shows me what he wants me to see and even makes it clear what he thinks, but I draw the line at being told how I must think. You might wonder if this is my own middle-age rebellion, but it’s much older than that.

What do I like so much about Everyone Brave Is Forgiven? The characters are flawed but sympathetic and alive. The prose is vivid, fresh, delicious, and sometimes breathtaking. And for all my past reading of World War II history, this novel gives me a vantage point on the war which I have barely noticed before. The simple fact of the matter is, if you ask Americans when World War II began, they’ll say December 1941 — if they’re aware enough of history to be able to pin a date on Pearl Harbor. By then, in this novel as in actual history, much of what happens to England in the war has already happened. London is already reduced to a shambles and beginning to rebuild.

East London during the Blitz - WWII
East London rubble during the Blitz of WWII

I dislike spoilers, so I’ll offer sample passages from just the first two chapters, to show off the writing and introduce the central character, one Mary North, whose family property is untouched by the bombing which levels much of London; whose father is a Member of Parliament with aspirations to the Cabinet; and whose world view is about to be forcibly expanded in several dimensions. In the early chapters that process is just beginning, but even here, in her author’s skillful hands, she has considerable charm and potential.

Here are the novel’s first three sentences:

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.

If you already suspect that she doesn’t yet know what war is, you’re right.

Any moment now it would start — this dreaded and wonderful thing — and could never be won without her.

What was war, after all, but morale in helmets and jeeps? And what was morale if not one hundred million little conversations, the sum of which might leave men brave enough to advance? The true heart of war was small talk, in which Mary was wonderfully expert. . . . Mary gladly joined the great flow of the willing.

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.

She convinces herself that she really is to be a spy. She is undaunted when the address to which she is to report turns out to be that of a school.

Mary opened her mouth to argue, then stopped and tugged at her gloves. Because of course they didn’t have a glittering tower, just off Horse Guards, labeled MINISTRY OF WILD INTRIGUE. Naturally they would have her report somewhere innocuous.

. . .

The man drove them to Hawley Street with no more haste than the delivery of one more schoolmistress would merit. Mary was careful to adopt the expression an ordinary young woman might wear — a girl for whom the taxi ride would be an unaccustomed extravagance, and for whom the prospect of work as a schoolteacher would seem a thrill. She made her face suggest the kind of sincere immersion in the present moment that she imagined dairy animals must also enjoy, or geese.

Arriving at the school, she felt observed. In character, she tipped the taxi driver a quarter of what she normally would have given him. This was her first test, after all. She put on the apologetic walk of an ordinary girl presenting for interview. As if the air resented being parted. As if the ground shrieked from the wound of each step.

She ends up thinking they take their cover story a bit far, when they send her down the hall, third door on the left, to teach a class — as a test, she supposes. But she will soon discover a passion for actual teaching and, eventually, an aptitude for it. (That’s a very minor spoiler, and you could already see it coming.)

Her first major assignment is evacuating her students to the country, away from the threat of bombing. The muster point is next to a zoo, from which the animals have already been evacuated, and into which one rebel student flees. Mary is sent in pursuit and finds him hiding in a pile of straw.

The straw clung to his hair. “Miss?” he said. “Why did they take the animals away?”

“Different reasons in each case,” said Mary, counting them off on her fingers. “The hippopotami because they are such frightful cowards, the wolves since one can never be entirely sure whose side they are on, and the lions because they are to be parachuted directly into Berlin Zoo to take on Herr Hitler’s big cats.”

“So the animals are at war too?”

“Well of course they are. Wouldn’t it be absurd if it were just us?”

The boy’s expression suggested that he had not previously taken the matter under consideration.

“What are two sevens?” asked Mary, taking advantage.

The boy began his reckoning, in the deliberate and dutiful manner of a child who intended to persevere at least until he ran out of fingers. Not for the first time that week, Mary suppressed both a smile and a delightful suspicion that teaching might not be the worst way to spend the idle hours between breakfast and society.

I could suggest several bits of foreshadowing in these excerpts — not least the ground shrieking from wounds — but the war will come soon enough even without such analysis.

Some readers will wish to be warned in advance of some language one would not use in Sunday School and some human behavior one would not endorse there, not to mention a responsible amount of wartime violence, which I suppose one also would not endorse.

But if you think you would have loved a teacher like Mary North when you were a child; if you welcome a gifted author’s demonstration (à la Tolstoy and Vasily Grossman) that it is individual souls who matter, even during great wars; if the wit and subtlety of the author’s prose here delight you — note, for example, his deft comment on the absurdity of war — and if you think you might enjoy lingering with his characters for a while, as they personally discover and endure the sometimes gruesome, often sad, occasionally joyous details of wartime, then this serious but witty novel — this witty but serious tale — may be for you.

If you find that it is — or isn’t, for that matter — I’d love to hear what you think. Comments are welcome here.

And don’t miss the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Perhaps it will not speak to you as it did to me. But then again, it might.

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