The London Blitz is cinematically re-imagined in a deeply moving new novel from Chris Cleave. As he did in “Little Bee,” he places forthright characters in impossible situations in “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” a story set during World War II.
Germany began its relentless bombing of London in 1940 when the novel’s heroine, Mary North, is just a teen. From a well-to-do upper-crust family, Mary’s disdain for class lines and her not-yet-in-fashion embrace of racial and gender equality are closely examined in this dramatic story even as London’s buildings collapse and countless citizens are found dead in the rubble.
“Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is peopled with richly developed heroes such as Mary who struggle with emotional and physical pain as a result of the war and the Blitz. Among the novel’s other brave citizens are Mary’s “almost” fiancé, Tom Shaw, who runs the city school district. He’s a civil servant satisfied with riding out the war at home until he’s wracked with guilt over the enlistment of his best friend, Alistair Heath. Mary, Tom and Alistair play out a love triangle of sorts, and each will suffer horrific pain and tragedy as a result of the war.
But Mary is the novel’s altruistic conscience. She gets a job teaching the children who, after being sent to safety in the countryside, are returned because no families will take them in. These include children with disabilities as well as Zachary, a black American child. It’s through him that the ugly racism of wartime England is on gruesome display. The disrespect and name-calling that Zachary and other London blacks endure is unsettling to observe but works to give us a clearer picture of the strength of Mary’s character and will.
Through Alistair we experience the life-draining effects of PTSD. It’s because of his growing love for Mary, even though they are separated by circumstance and time, that he endures on the battlefields of Ardennes, Dunkirk and Malta, despite a lack of food and desperately needed medical care.
Cleave uses these young people to expose human suffering during this terrible time in history, but he encircles all the tragedies in the human heart’s capacity to heal, regain hope and move on. This is a novel that embraces human confidence that life can be patched and sutured to resemble happier times. In the end, Cleave remixes the novel’s title, writing, “It was a world one might still know, if everyone forgiven was brave.”
Carol Memmott’s reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
By: Chris Cleave.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 424 pages, $26.99.