By Christopher Cleave; published by Sceptre in 2016; 438 pp.
Just when you think there are no stories left, fictional or true, to tell about World War II, another one crops up. This one is a novel by British writer Christopher Cleave. He already has several successful novels under his belt, although this is the first one of his that I have read. Although suggested by some incidents in the life of Cleave's grandfather, a World War II serviceman, the story is fictional. It's very good.
It is basically a love story set against the wider background of the early years of World War II in England. Mary is young, upper-middle-class (her father is an MP hoping for a Cabinet appointment), just out of finishing school, and keen to do her bit for King and country. Instead of Intelligence work – which she hoped for – she is assigned to teach kids in an inner London school. When most of the kids are evacuated to the countryside, she is left with a small group which the countryside doesn't want: coloureds, crippled, and those with intellectual difficulties. Her boss is Tom, an Education Department bureaucrat. Tom and Mary form an emotional bond, and engagement and marriage look a distinct possibility. Mary's close friend, Hilda, less serious and idealistic than her friend, just hopes to hook a tall man in uniform. Meanwhile, to Tom's consternation, his best friend and housemate, Alistair, promptly joins up and becomes a gunner in the Royal Artillery. While Alistair is briefly on leave in London, he and Mary meet and there is an instant attraction between them. This, of course, is very awkward; partly because of the Mary/Tom link and partly because Hilda has fallen for Alistair too.
Then the bombs start to fall on London. After having survived the Battle of France, Alistair is posted to an anti-aircraft artillery unit in Malta. Besieged and cut off by the German and Italian forces, Malta (and Alistair) slowly starve while incessant air raids batter the place to pieces. Meanwhile, back in London, Mary and Hilda are caught up in the Blitz. Mary's school is bombed, many of the kids and Tom are killed, and a distraught Mary decides to drive ambulances in the Blitz. She commences a desultory correspondence with Alistair in faraway Malta. It becomes clear their mutual attraction is something serious, and Hilda gets very jealous. Then, Mary is almost killed in an air raid, while Hilda is seriously disfigured. Alistair loses an arm in Malta. Will anyone be left alive to have any sort of relationship?
The story spans the early years of the war, from its outbreak in September 1939 until early 1942, just after the Americans enter the conflict. The novel's main theme is the effect of war on human relationships, and the accidental, or even fickle, nature of love. Can it survive between two people when the world around them is falling to pieces? If the two of them survive, how will they have changed, both inwardly and towards each other? These are the fundamental questions between Mary and Alistair that Christopher Cleave masterfully explores.
There are several sub-themes: in Cleave's wartime London, only the socially acceptable, middle-class kids are evacuated to safety, while the rejects – the black, the disabled, and the mentally slow – are left behind to face the bombs. In the novel, Mary forms a special bond with several of her young, black students and is heavily criticised by her white, socially superior friends. It threatens her relations with her own socially prominent family, especially her ambitious mother. The whole issue, along with the constant bombing, also threatens Mary's sanity and she takes to drugs. (Yes – even in the 1940s.) This whole black/white issue is then linked by the novelist to the British class system. Mary's parents feel she is letting the side down by associating with socially inferior children. Alistair, as commander of a troop of gunners on Malta, feels he, as an officer, is their social superior but tries his best to do the right thing by his men, while Alistair's fellow officer and good friend, Simonson, is cynical about the whole class structure anyway. Yet, Cleave is not "preachy" on these topics. It is clear where his sympathies lie, but his exploration of them is shot through with many flashes of humour which prevent serious purpose degenerating into didactic and dreary ideology.
Cleave writes with an unerring eye for detail, mood, and atmosphere. He is not one of those novelists who allows closely observed detail to get in the way of a crackling good story. His re-creation of London during the Blitz is vivid, but using beautifully stripped-down language. He writes of the starvation on Malta in deceptively simple terms, but you feel the pain and the hunger of those who are being starved to death by the Axis blockade of the island. He writes of relatively few direct military encounters, but when he does, they happen suddenly, without warning, and are described in almost everyday terms which merely multiply their terror. Death is impersonal, almost remote: a bomb dropped by an unseen enemy from 20,000 feet; a cannon shell fired by an enemy fighter pilot who disappears before his victim knew what hit him. There is only one scene in the book where there is face-to-face, brutal contact between British and Germans. A shot-down German airman is set upon and tortured by enraged Maltese villagers. Alistair tries to intervene and save him, but his efforts go horribly pear-shaped and the German suffers a gruesome end. Death is, of course, present throughout the story, but this incident is doubly shocking and disturbing because of its direct, person-to-person character.
Of course, the ultimate question is what will happen if, or when, Mary and Alistair survive and finally meet up? Cleave's resolution of this, the novel's central challenge, is (sort-of) sad, ambiguous, and hopeful, all at the same time. It is a sign of the writer's skill that this vaguely "up in the air" ending is handled so convincingly. He is too young to have personally experienced the war, yet, as he himself notes, he is among probably the last generation of writers able to talk to real people who actually experienced World War II.
I don't read many romances, neither do I go to many romantic movies. However, my recent trip to the movie "Me before You" (which I recently reviewed) and, now, this excellent Christopher Cleave novel, have alerted me to the possibility that not all romance stories are designed for teenagers. "Everyone Brave Is Forgiven" is a fine, absorbing, tale for the discerning adult reader. Its themes of love, war, social class, and racial prejudice are as relevant today as they were back in the 1940s. Doubly so, when they are handled by a good novelist in peak form.
I enjoyed this book greatly. (I think it would make a good film too. Here's hoping...)
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * *