I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.
Tom is a young London schoolmaster determined not to let a few German bombs get in the way of a generation’s education. Mary ditches finishing school the day war is declared and soon finds herself assigned to teaching the few children that remain in London after evacuation. Tom’s roommate, Alistair, helps get the nation’s most valuable paintings into hiding and promptly signs up to fight, while Mary’s best friend, Hilda, is determined to snag a man in uniform and fancies she might improve her chances by volunteering for the ambulance service.
If their actions and motivations seem impulsive or flippant, forgive them: it’s only 1939 and not one among them has any inkling of how long the war will last and how completely it will reshape their world. Over the coming years, each will be driven to the point where, if only for a moment, their bravery gutters. They will be forced to make impossible decisions and bear the weight of consequence.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, 2016) is a story of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and is as much about acknowledging weakness as discovering strength.
There is so much I love about this book. Top of the list is that Everyone Brave is Forgiven serves as an antithesis to the stereotypical heroic war narrative. If Cleave wrote that story, Tom and Mary would become spies and cross the class divide for a love forged in fire, and Alistair would fight with valour and sustain a serious-yet-non-life-threatening injury while saving a dozen men’s lives and need to be nursed back to health by Hilda. They’d grieve the loss of minor characters but emerge triumphant and live happily ever after. But Cleave is far more interested in examining the idea of what it means to be brave and, more importantly, if it’s possible to continue being brave, year after year, with no end to the war in sight.
Cleave’s characters do all the ‘brave’ things you might expect from WWII heroes. They give up civilian comforts to volunteer for the war effort, put their lives at risk to aid their fellow Brits, forfeit their place in society to help those less fortunate, run into burning houses to save children, and, of course, fight Germans. However, each also has moments of weakness where their courage fails. They behave badly as lovers and friends, act selfishly and lack the strength to do what is necessary. All would appear minor faults in peacetime, but in war have serious consequences, and both the characters and reader are left wondering: do their good works cancel out their failings? Are standards around what constitutes ‘bravery’ too high? Can they forgive themselves and each other these small but significant indiscretions?
These questions also tie into the larger question of what does it mean to be ‘brave’ in the first place? Here Cleave returns to familiar ground and taps into one of the great dilemmas of war: ‘Who knows which takes more courage—to die in battle, or to live in vain? It cuts all of us in two, I suppose.’ It’s a dilemma war narratives have wrestled with since Hector slew Patroklos and forced Achilles to make his fateful choice: to die young and far from home a hero or live long with the knowledge of all he failed to do. The Iliad is a gutting read, especially the final books when Achilles has made the choice to avenge his friend. The forging of his armour and the naming of each soldier he fells on his path to meet Hector brings a mounting sense of dread, delivering him closer to glory and death. But in some ways, his is the easy sacrifice to make. The Muses gather around his funeral pyre to sing his kleos while his fellow soldiers sail for home, exhausted by war. I think this is, at least in part, why many modern readers find Odysseus, set upon by monsters and sick for home, a more sympathetic figure than his fleet-footed comrade. Cleave’s characters beg a similar kind of sympathy. They don’t get to die in a blaze of glory; they have to live. And keep living. As food becomes scarce. Friends die. Bombs fall. And months become years.
Cleave doesn’t focus on the obvious heroes. In fact, he attempts to show his readers aspects of the war that are too often missing from history books and WWII fiction. I was particularly taken with his inclusion of the children who remained in London during the blitz. It’s no surprise that these children were those with special needs or from minority groups:
…The crippled and the congenitally strange, those the country folk wouldn’t accommodate. The negro children, too, of course—only a few had been evacuated, and those were already starting to trickle back. The evacuation was a beauty contest in which the little ones were lined up in church halls and the yokels allowed to pick the blonds.
In particular, Mary strikes up a friendship with Zachary, an African American boy whose father performs in a minstrel troop. When her school eventually closes, she continues to teach Zachary and his friends in the basement where the troop performs during the blitz. This is the first narrative I recall reading that includes the black community in London at the time; however, in an interview with Trib Live, Cleave explains: ‘There were examples of black families being kicked out of bomb shelters during air raids. … There were evacuations that didn’t happen. They didn’t evacuate black children, and they didn’t evacuate poor people.’
I’m aware that I’m making Everyone Brave is Forgiven sound like a grim read. It is, and it isn’t. The story is heavy, but Cleave draws his reader in with very British, almost Mitfordian wit. Even in the narrative’s darkest moments, Cleave’s characters are ready with a quip: ‘This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.’—not making light of the situation, but coping. It reads as a testament to English resilience. And between the sparky dialogue Cleave delivers some of the most divine prose I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure Everyone Brave is Forgiven would be my kind of book. I generally shy away from war narratives—too bloody depressing—but I was drawn in by the title, then the characters (flawed and funny and doing their damnedest to get by) and I very quickly fell in love. It’s my favourite kind of book: a good story well told that combines Big Themes and a fancy prose style with memorable characters and a damn good story.
Fellow Aussie readers, please note I received an OS ARC of this title. If you’re looking for it in Australian bookshops, it’s published by Hachette Australia and looks like this:
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up seven critical issues and eighteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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