Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (review)

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (NetGalley)
Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster

I read Chris Cleave’s Little Bee for book club just about five years ago. And I liked it–with a few reservations. I liked this new novel of his–which also received a great deal of hype–with the same uncertainty.

London, 1939. Mary North, a Pimlico blueblood, signs up to help with the war effort before her parents can intervene. She expects excitement–espionage, even. What she gets is a teaching position. But at nineteen, Mary is still almost as rebellious and childish as her young charges; she doesn’t last long in her first assignment. She does, however, meet Tom Shaw, a young administrator with the Education Authority. Mary importunes until he gives up and offers her a classroom of her own.

[Now did you see how that word ‘importune’ is a little out of place there? It’s just a little too stuffy–the word almost calls attention to itself, doesn’t it? Well author Cleave is a master of using words that call attention to themselves, as in this little beauty: “”Her confusion grew, the heart lucent and the mind lucifuguous, the great clash of music …” What the heck?!] 

Everyone Brave Is ForgivenBut her classroom is made up of London’s cast-off children–the ones who couldn’t be evacuated to the countryside: children with mental handicaps and physical disabilities. Oh, and a negro child Zachary, whose father is an American performing with a minstrel show in London. But Mary treats the children tenderly and offers them some sense of normalcy, even during the London Blitz. She also takes up with Tom, and their love story is a respite in the midst of wartime.

Mary also meets Alistair, once Tom’s roommate, now on leave for a few weeks, a seasoned officer in the British military . She’s drawn to him in ways she wasn’t with Tom–and then he’s gone to war again, this time to Malta. There’s also Mary’s friend Hilda who plays the plain girl sidekick role. We have a jar of blackberry preserves and more than a few near-death situations. A little morphine addiction. A foray into ambulance driving. A loyal servant and a father in Parliament.

I know I sound overly critical–it’s a rollicking World War II saga. But maybe that’s a problem when it comes to war stories, no? It comes too close to trivializing a horror. I’m not the only reader who had some misgivings–USA Today’s review was lukewarm, at best; The Washington Post also had some misgivings. I did read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven straight through one weekend, so that says something–apparently I was able, on some level, to forgive the story’s faults.

But if you want a really good World War II novel, try to get your hands on a copy of Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers.

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