@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Here is Britain’s World War II as viewed through the perspective of five young people. Their varied and often cruel experiences stand in for the evil and disruption of the war that comes to upend all their lives. The action unfolds month by month from September 1939, when Britain enters the war, through June 1942. The larger events that come to dominate their lives are the London Blitz, the evacuation of British children from London to the countryside, the Nazi Blitzkrieg advance into northern France, the devastation of Allied shipping by Germany’s U-boats, and the siege of Malta, where British forces are trapped under siege from the German and Italian air forces.
Mary North rushes to volunteer for war service less than an hour after war is declared on Germany. She is 18, the daughter of a Conservative Member of Parliament who is angling for a place in the Cabinet. Expecting a glamorous role in intelligence, Mary is assigned instead as a schoolteacher for a classroom of children about to be evacuated to the countryside. She takes on the job with enthusiasm, quickly developing an unorthodox approach to teaching that engages the children.
One of Mary’s pupils, Zachary Lee, proves especially rebellious. He’s 11, an African-American whose father plays the leading role in a London minstrel show. Mary soon learns Zachary is severely dyslexic, though the term isn’t yet in use. She develops a special relationship with him in the face of the racist abuse he suffers every day. Determined to help nonetheless, she sets out to teach him to read and write despite his disability.
Tom Shaw, 23, decides to give the war a pass. He holds an administrative role in the ministry of education. When Mary is fired from her teaching job because she has befriended her students rather than acted in the dictatorial manner expected of her, she finds her way to Tom to demand another class to teach. It’s not long before they fall into bed together.
Meanwhile, Mary’s best friend, Hilda Appleby, wants only to find a husband. She is much less pretty than Mary and is constantly complaining that Mary steals the men she’s set her eyes on. This issue takes center stage when Tom and Mary bring Hilda together with Tom’s flatmate, Alistair Heath. Hilda falls for him, but Alistair has eyes only for Mary. Hilda’s jealousy strains her friendship with Mary.
All these relationships sound utterly conventional and uninteresting when described in shorthand, as I’ve done above. But there’s nothing conventional about the circumstances, which soon twist and warp their young lives. The Blitz and the Siege of Malta loom especially large, and none of their lives is ever the same. And there’s nothing the least bit tedious about the story as Chris Cleave tells it. His narrative style is captivating. The dialogue sparkles brightly, brimming over with wit. Especially in the early chapters I found myself laughing out loud as I came to fall in love with these finely drawn characters.
This is the history of World War II through a microscope, beautifully rendered.
About the author
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is the fourth of Chris Cleave‘s novels. His first, Incendiary, was published in 20 countries and won major awards. My review is here. He is also the author of Little Bee, which appeared on US bestseller lists for months. Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.