With its references to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” from a Financial Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition I knew that this would be a must-read for me. It is also an apt and deserved comparison.
And like McEwan and Waters I am happy to welcome Cleave as an author of one of my 100 Essential Books – such is the quality of this novel. His fourth book but the first I have read and for once I am pleased about this because I can tell this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way with “Incendiary”, (Winner of a Somerset Maugham award for writers under 35 in 2006), the 2008 Costa Award shortlisted “The Other Hand” and “Gold” (2013).
Also like McEwan and Waters Cleave has re-created the war years perhaps more evocatively than most of the countless writers who were writing when that period was not so distant. Perhaps we need that distance and the stories of our parents and grandparents need to become assimilated into what we perceive life in those years to have been like. Cleave loosely based his novel on a series of letters between his grandparents.
The novel spans from September 1939-June 1942 and has a refreshingly simple month by month chronological structure. It is centred on wartime London and Malta where a blockade is starving the serving officers and civilians. Mary North signs up for War Office work and finds herself being sent to teach in a Primary School where preparations for evacuation are under way. She soon discovers that not all children are welcomed by host families and within her now empty school and with the support of her school official boyfriend, Tom, begins to work with the children unwanted by the countryside.
Tom’s work means that initially he is too valuable to be called up but flatmate Alastair joins up, taking a jar of jam Tom made to be eaten together at the end of the war and soon finds himself an officer in Malta, struggling to survive.
What Cleave gets across very well is the thin line between life and death for this generation. Catastrophe can descend very quickly and the characters have to adapt their lives to this. They fall in love quickly, have to endure long absences and periods of not knowing whether loved ones are dead or alive. This all seems alien to our generation but there are still many people with us who lived through these times and Cleve’s novel has further deepened my appreciation of these people. Also very effectively conveyed are the attitudes of a class-driven society suspicious of other races. The treatment of black American schoolboy Zachary is shocking both in terms of action and language used. Cleave confronts these issues which can make for some disturbing moments.
The novel is well-written and totally involving. I found myself purposely slowing down my reading of it because I wanted to savour just what was going on (causing a bit of a backlog of books to be read to build up) but I don’t regret a single moment spent in the time of Chris Cleave’s characters.
This is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history. Seek it out!
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published in April 2016 by Sceptre and as a paperback from January 2017.