British novelist Chris Cleave has proven his ability to write sprawling, thoroughly researched stories about people struggling to build a stable life in an often violent world—his international #1 bestseller about a Nigerian refugee, Little Bee is a prime example. His latest novel, the wartime epic Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, perhaps his most personal book, is rooted in his own family history. As Cleave explains in the preface, the story is partially inspired by the life and letters of his grandfather, a WW II artillery captain.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven begins in London in 1939 and spans the eerie, increasingly devastating first years of World War II. Protagonist Mary North is a wealthy, idealistic 18-year-old who volunteers to serve as a teacher. She ends up in charge of the children who are considered outcasts—those of color and those with disabilities—who have not been evacuated to the countryside. The experience begins a shift in her perceptions of social divisions built on class and race.
Mary falls in love with Tom, a young teacher, and eventually befriends his best friend, Alistair, an art restorer who goes off to fight in France and Malta. The early chapters, focused on Alistair’s gruesome battlefield experiences, offer a stark contrast with the scenes of Tom and Mary’s lives back in London, which has not yet descended into chaos. Then the historic London Blitz bombings shatter the city’s pretense of security—and bring a new level of upheaval for the main characters.
Since love triangles are often found in epic, wartime novels, readers may not be surprised that affections become romantically entangled between Tom, Alistair, and Mary. But it’s not quite a conventional triangle—and the story is, thankfully, about far more than who will end up with whom. Cleave also focuses on friendships and family relationships as he examines how people are altered by the visceral trauma and uncertainty of the times. Mary’s friendship with her vivacious, envious best friend, Hilda, and her friendship with Zachary, a dyslexic black orphan, are two vivid examples of relationships that greatly change her.
For every character in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, even the darkest stretches of life are tempered with moments of levity, and the warmth of humor is particularly poignant in the letters exchanged between Mary and Alistair. Chris Cleave has written a tragic, richly atmospheric novel that is impressive in its scope and realistic in the striking moral questions it asks about living out loyalty, honor, empathy, and forgiveness in a time of war. (Banner review)