Click here to read reviewer Angela Woltman's take on Everything Brave is Forgiven.
I found this novel exhausting, sometimes tedious, and at other times compelling. An undisciplined writer, Cleave’s overly verbose narrative often unfolds like chalk on a chalkboard. About halfway through the novel, I just wanted to shout “Stop!” In Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Cleave throws everything at the wall; racism, the London Blitz, repatriated children, and the siege of Malta are all juxtaposed with a rather messy and tragic love story. In 1939, demi-monde Mary North volunteers to be a school mistress, ignoring the pleas from her socially conscious mother that young women of her background don’t usually consider such a profession.
Mary, however, is of the opinion that teaching helps the war effort by freeing up able men to serve. Her best friend, Hilda--a society girl herself--is proud that Mary is doing something for the war. Mary’s work sends her into the orbit of Tom Shaw, who runs a local school district. Tom finds her a post at Hawley Street School where she meets Zachary, a young colored boy who at first dismisses Mary but is later drawn to her when he’s placed in her classroom after returning to London from the country.
Mary teaches the only school-age children who remain, a ragtag and “frankly unappealing lot” that includes the crippled, the congenitally strange, and the children the country folk don’t want to accommodate, particularly the negro children as well as the outsiders and the socially unaccepted. In these early scenes, Cleave shows us how the evacuation from London is as much a beauty contest as it is an exercise in patriotism. In all of the villages and towns peppered throughout rural England, “the little ones were lined up” in the church halls and the billeting families were “allowed to pick the blonds.”
Emphasizing the carefree nature of his characters’ experiences, Cleave hammers home how life’s bedrock assumptions can suddenly crack open. With his colleagues joining the army, Tom seems to be the only man in London who does not think the war “an unmissable parade lap.” Returning to his garret, a converted attic on Prince of Wales Road, Tom discovers that his flatmate Alistair has signed up. Blond and robust with an easy smile, Alistair has a stoic’s gift for shrugging off the war until he’s transported to Salisbury Plain for training, where he’s forced to endure the indefatigable tyranny of his Sergeant Major and the insidious Salisbury chill, “a fortnight of sour cold.”
Given the novel’s action-packed premise, Cleave certainly delivers on the dramatic evolution of his characters’ lives. All four chief protagonists (Mary, Hilda, Tom, and Alistair) are maimed and scarred by the war in some way--particularly Alistair, who finds himself isolated on Malta with no food or water, forced to take cover as the Italian air force constantly pound the island.
I really liked aspects of this book, such as Cleave’s colorful portrayal of a City preparing for attack, its rank marshes to the East and the images of miniature Zeppelins tethered in cable along the line of the Thames. There are also the scenes at Lyceum’s Minstrel Show, where Zachery works with his father. Mary, Tom, Hilda, and Alistair are watching the show just as the first bomb hits London with “unimagined force.” From the flashes that light up the night sky to the sound of the explosions that come huge and heavy, the foursome begin to feel strangely disconnected from the reality of war.
Later in the novel, when both Mary and Hilda work as ambulance drivers, searching for bodies and body parts, the searchlights are extinguished and a dull orange glow appears on the underside of the clouds. From these fires that rage all night to Tom’s tragedy, Mary sees the war like “ten million severed and jangling nerves.” Cleave captures this feeling of living on the edge of a chaotic world, a world of “drawn-up wills” and “the newly betrothed,” of all the men who call the war “a bastard” then laugh at the mess it makes of one’s nerves. The author unfurls the disappointment of lovers and an intended fiancé, Hilda, who at first chooses Alistair, the college-educated officer. In turn, Alistair is blindsided by his connection to Mary and her plans to begin a new life with Tom once the war is over.
Written with attention to period detail, there is great beauty to Cleave’s story. The exotic Maltese locations together with a bombed-out and destroyed London provide a fractured time warp into a difficult and turbulent past. I still couldn’t help feeling that less linguistically long-winded writers such as Sarah Waters and Pat Baker do a far better job of portraying war’s shattered and bloody landscapes.