Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Everything Brave is Forgiven.
Chris Cleave, the bestselling and award-winning author of three previous novels (including the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award-winner Incendiary), takes on the task of setting a love story set in London during World War II. Inspired by the true story and letters of his own grandparents, Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story of Mary North and Alistair Heath, two young people who are going about their lives in blissful ignorance of what horrors are about to happen to them, and to the world at large.
Mary is from a privileged family but has eschewed tradition by dating a poor schoolteacher and insisting on becoming a teacher herself. As the war begins and most children are sent to the countryside to be safe from air raids, Mary is given the task of teaching those left behind—the deformed, mentally challenged, and the negroes. She loves the challenge and, with her happy evenings of merriment with boyfriend Tom and sharp-tongued best friend Hilda, Mary’s indomitable spirit shines off the page.
Tom is a sweet but not very dynamic character, and it’s no wonder that when he introduces his former roommate and current war hero Alastair to the two girls, sparks immediately fly between him and Mary--much to chagrin of Hilda. Before anything can transpire between the two, the war takes him away again and throws London into a nightmare world of air raids, mass destruction, desperation, and fear.
Told on the smaller scale of only what the two main characters see of the war, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is very effective at showing not only how World War II decimated countries, but also how it destroyed individual lives, hopes, dreams and the foundation of what a person truly is when it comes to the worst of circumstances. Cleave does an admirable job of introducing a host of characters (including Mary’s negro student, Zachary, who steals the show in almost every scene he appears in) whom the reader truly cares about. In the beginning, they reel you in with their humor, their wit, and their zest for life. When Cleave utilizes the war to start systematically tearing them down, it’s heartbreaking—and all you wish for is that they will somehow get through the horror and be able to retain a shred of their former selves.
Cleave’s prose is never overdone, and he describes the realities of the war in stark, simple language that makes it all the more powerful. Though described as a ‘love story’, the book is more of a story about humanity and how people endure, break down, then build themselves up again in times of unimaginable stress. The fact that you’re rooting for two broken souls to find each other again and hopefully make each other a little more whole just makes the story that much more touching.
Whether you’re interested in the World War II era or not, you should definitely put Everyone Brave is Forgiven on your list. With deft characterization, unflinching honesty and a fascinating backdrop, Cleave has crafted a novel that will stay with you long after the last page is read.