When war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up.
Tom Shaw decides to give it a miss – until his flatmate Alistair unexpectedly enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided.
Young, bright and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is – bewilderingly – made a teacher, she instead finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.
Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary.
And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined, entangling three lives in violence and passion, friendship and deception, inexorably shaping their hopes and dreams.
In a powerful combination of both humour and heartbreak, this dazzling novel weaves little-known history, and a perfect love story, through the vast sweep of the Second World War – daring us to understand that, against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs, that change us most.
I came to Everyone Brave is Forgiven with little prior knowledge of the book and was immediately immersed in the story of war in London during the Blitz, and in Malta during the wartime siege.
We are introduced to Mary North as something of a precocious, ambitious and kind-hearted young woman of an upper-class upbringing (her father is in government and her family home in Pimlico is never touched by the bombs.) As she starts on her teaching career, educating those children leftover from the evacuation, she also starts a relationship with the rather wet but well-meaning academic officer who offered her the position: Tom.
Mary is witty and sharp, and as the story progresses, also somewhat conceited and irksome. One of the main things that redeems her in my eyes is her consistently maternal and caring relationship with Zachary, the son of a black musician. We know from Mary’s best friend Hilda that she has a reputation of stealing her friends’ men, and when she meets Tom’s friend Alistair, recently voluntarily enlisted, there too seems to be some sort of spark.
Perhaps I’ve made the story out to be a little predictable, but I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting the ruthlessness with which Cleave deals with his characters and the tragedies that befall them.
Cleave paints a vivid picture of the war and in many ways it is the London left behind, falling apart, rather than the battlefields of continental Europe, which makes for the more disturbing and heartbreaking scenes. I really liked how he writes of horrors and atrocities with an everyday matter-of-fact tone – sometimes killing characters, or presenting shocking events with little or no build-up, and without sentiment. I suppose he reflects the idea that in the world of WWII, horror and tragedy becomes an everyday occurrence. I also liked the way he finds a wry kind of humour in the heartache. Mary and Alistair are both funny human beings with dry senses of humour, and it is only in their darkest places that they lose this quality. And that’s when it gets really sad.
The ending of Everyone Brave is Forgiven is evocative of the novel as a whole. London is in pieces, burning, as American soldiers come in to revive and rescue it. Mary and Alistair too are in pieces, but they do not know if they can be rescued and revived, and although they have survived, and are together, they don’t seem to be sure that they can find a happiness in this world, in themselves, or even in each other.