Wednesday, 11 May 2016

"Everyone Brave is Forgiven" Chris Cleave

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
I was pleased to be approved for an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley as not only have I read Chris Cleave's other's books and enjoyed them, but the buzz about this one from Twitter and other Book Bloggers was too tantalising!

Cleave always picks interesting - sometimes controversial - issues to explore in his novels. I remember "Little Bee" to be particularly captivating and quite unputdownable - particularly the ending. I read it with a Book Group and it was a successful choice, popular with everyone and stimulating good conversation. If you haven't already read it, I would really recommend you do!

"Everyone Brave is Forgiven" is a little different from Cleave's previous work in the sense that it felt a more understated book. To me, there was nothing initially remarkable or outstanding about this Second World War novel; the plot is not new, the set up and events familiar to many stories set in this time period. However, there is something quietly powerful about it. There is something subtly captivating about it and the writing is a real treat. Cleave's prose appears simple and yet there are so many compelling descriptions and images, I found myself frequently rereading passages and sentences I was so taken by the use of language. It was a gently surprising read and the more I read, the more absorbed I became. This book really shows his capabilities and talents as an accomplished author. This novel uses the back drop of war to explore the effects of war on the ordinary; the courage, suffering and love of everyday people during a time of violence, loss and sacrifice. It is an unassuming novel that actually proffers much food for thought, unobtrusively and without pretension.

The book begins in 1939 with Mary North, a young socialite, who decides to sign up for the war effort within 45 minutes of it's declaration with the main purpose of shocking her family. She leaves her European Finishing School unfinished and rushes back to London anxious that "she may have missed a minute of war." She is immediately engaged as a teacher and there is a very entertaining section where Mary remains convinced this is a cover as she is secretly being vetted for her real vocation as a spy - surely she is destined for more dangerous and adventurous purpose rather than accompanying children on their evacuation to the countryside? I immediately took to Mary. She is a vivid and authentic character with a well defined identity. Cleave presents her through wry and ironic humour but she is likeable and appealing. I enjoyed her part of the story the most and her voice was always clear and confident.

We are then introduced to two other characters, Tom and Alistair; old friends who write letters to each other while Tom continues in his job as an Education Administer and Alistair enlists and is sent to fight. Tom first meets Mary through their work and then introduces her to Alistair. Both men fall in love with her and the tragic ensuing love triangle is then the main focus of the novel. This is what makes this novel remarkable. Not necessarily the wartime setting, but the definition of these characters and their journeys - physical and emotional.

Mary has never taught before but when the children have been sent away to a village far away "that London never called to mind unless some ominous thing happened", she feels bereft and misses them, particularly Zachary to whom she promised she would not leave. I found her surprise attachment to the children and the job very touching. When Tom creates a new position for her - to establish a new school for the "cripples and pariahs" left behind- she sees the "raindrops as champagne bubbles bursting on her skin" and is filled with a vitality, a mission and an anger about providing an education and a history for these young people. I absolutely loved it when she said "What good is it to teach a child to count if you don't show him that he counts for something?" A truly thought provoking statement which also illustrates the change in Mary and her beliefs and attitudes.

Interjected amongst and in contrast to the war torn London of Tom and Mary's lives, we follow Alistair; his training and then his travels abroad and his experiences of a fighting solider. The sergeant who trains him speaks ONLY IN CAPITALS which I thought was a really effective way of simply conveying character, tension and atmosphere. The men are a "chance agglomeration of greengrocers and machinists and accounting clerks." Alistair's sections are made up with juxtapositions between his attempts to process the terrible events he's witnessed and what he choose to write in his letters to Tom. It is again a simple, yet effective way of highlighting the discrepancy between the experience of those at "home" and those at the "front". Alistair's statements about war are blunt but carry resonance. His disaffectedness and disconnection from what is happening in front of him is unsentimental yet moving at the same time.

There were some lines that were just really beautiful writing. For example: "You could have lost your gloves in the fog and found them later still suspended in the air at waist height." And then: "Perhaps this was what love was like after all- not the lurch of going over a humpback bridge and not the incandescence of fireworks, just the quiet understanding that one should take a kind hand when it was offered, before all light has gone from the sea." As I said before, there were some passages that I had to reread in order to appreciate fully. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Mary's story comes when she is trapped beneath some rubble. This was probably the best passage in the book.

Overall this was a good read. I thought the dialogue was particularly well written; it always felt real and believable. Cleave has created interesting and convincing characters whose lives intertwine in an intriguing and tragic way. The story arc is well controlled and well paced. The reader is held until the end and his writing is well observed and with insight. Within the book are some real gems of imagery and description - often hidden away and always catching you slightly unawares.

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