Everyone Brave is Forgiven | Author: Chris Cleave | Rating: 7.5/11 |
It is impossible to measure the impact that World War II has had on society’s collective psyche. While many of us grew up reading books about the mental anguish and physical devastation wrought by World War I – books such as Erich Maria Remarque’s classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Earnest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms – the atrocities and attendant controversies surrounding World War II became something of a literary sacred cow. The horror of the Holocaust overshadowed everything. Students dutifully read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, but anything dealing with the effect of the war on its soldiers was, for the most part, carefully left to the historians. It seemed disrespectful to look at the war from any other angle. Recent literary trends, however, have begun to shift the focus away from the Holocaust and onto the more general effects of the war, following in the much older trends of World War I literature. Hot on the heels of last year’s bestselling summer sensation, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, comes Chris Cleave’s new book exploring the war from the perspective of London’s shell-shocked population: Everyone Brave is Forgiven.
At the outbreak of hostilities, eighteen-year-old Mary North is eager to offer her services to the British War Department. But she is somewhat dismayed when she is assigned teaching duty at a public school, especially when she learns that her students are about to be evacuated to the countryside. However, the assignment reveals to Mary a hitherto undiscovered passion for teaching that leads to the discovery of other passions as well – not the least of which is for her colleague, Tom. But as the late nights of near constant shelling and its attendant stresses continue to change her, Mary realizes that she is not the carefree girl she once was. Her romantic interests gradually shift from Tom to his war-battered best friend, Alistair. Theirs is the subdued, long-distance romance of two guilt-wracked, broken parties trying to reach out to one another across the insurmountable void left by the war, even after a brutal injury in France sends Alistair back to London. As they struggle to recognize the changes in themselves and the changes in their beloved city, they must accept, individually and together, that nothing about the world will ever be the same again.
Like many modern novels about World War II, Cleave’s story focuses on the impact war has on the individual. Alistair’s tormented journey as a solider may be the most familiar to readers, but Cleave makes a compelling case as well for the shattering effects suffered by civilians like Mary. That being said, there are few surprises, here. Both the characters and their journeys are well-traveled in countless other books, and the elements that set Cleave’s novel apart from others – most notably, his interest in the systemic racism of the time – often feel confused and out of place with the overall thread of his story. However, Cleave states in his introduction that what he hopes most to achieve is a snapshot of the time, and he does an admirable job at achieving that. His characters are solid and relatable, his dialogue is poignant and quick-witted, and readers cannot help but ache for his cast. The book is well-researched and well-written, even if it does at times feel like something readers have already encountered before.
Writing a novel about World War II that is both sincere and quietly optimistic is not an easy task in today’s world, but it is a beautiful accomplishment to witness. Fans of All the Light We Cannot See and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief will enjoy this novel’s tragic humor, its genuine pathos, and the spark of humanity which remains at the heart of the war’s incomprehensible devastation.
Historical fiction fans won’t want to miss this one.