Smarty Book Review: ‘Everyone Brave Is Forgiven’
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The problem with reviewing a large amount of books is it’s possible to use up all the superlatives, particularly if you are excitable by nature and therefore prone to hyperbole. A list of words comes to mind after reading Chris Cleave’s latest work: poignant, witty, searing, beautiful. However, I am fairly certain I have already used those words in relation to other books, and they couldn’t possibly have meant the same thing in those cases. I’m going to have to invent new words to describe this book.
EBIF employs my favorite kind of protagonists: they’re all impossibly clever smart-asses (even better, impossibly clever British smart-asses) able to engage in such elegant, highbrow, witty banter with one another it’s as if Monty Python somehow fused with Downton Abbey and produced three people: Mary North, a young, charismatic upper-class socialite; Tom Shaw, the manager of a London school district; and Tom’s close friend and roommate, Alistair Heath, who has just enlisted in the British military at the dawn of World War II. Tom and Mary meet and begin dating amid the looming threat of the Blitz; Alistair is deployed to the besieged island of Malta, after a stint on the shores of France:
In a group of poor positions dug into the beach at Dunkirk, shells had screamed down and exploded on the beach at unpredictable intervals. Smoke blinded everyone: a sharp amalgam of black soot from ships that were stricken, and white chemical smoke that the British destroyer were laying in a screen. It made a lachrymose fog that reddened the men’s eyes and left their throats raw.
Alistair stood above the lip of his dugout. “How do you like the weather?” he called to his senior sergeant, Blake.
“Very seasonal, sir,” the man shouted form the next dugout. “With your permission, I might take a few of the men along the beach for ice creams.”
“Very good,” called Alistair. “See if you can pick up some deck chairs while you’re at it. We could rent them out here quite tidily.”
“Captive audience, isn’t it, sir?”
Alistair nodded. “Get HQ on the radio and have them send us a Punch and Judy booth. If you behave, I shall let you be Judy.”
He waited for Blake’s comeback, but Blake collected shrapnel to his body and crumpled sideways without fuss.
Things are only marginally better in London, as the Luftwaffe rains hell upon the city. Most of the city’s children have been evacuated to the countryside, leaving behind a motley collection of rejects: a few whose parents could not bear to part with them, even for their safety, but also the disabled, the simple-minded, and the dark-skinned; these were the children the countryside did not want. As her war romance with Tom begins to bloom, Mary–who has become especially fond of a boy named Zachary, the son of a minstrel–finds to her surprise that she’s a natural-born educator. Her methods of teaching are compelling, if unorthodox, unearthing both compassion and a newly awakened sense of social justice as the ugly reality of British prejudice becomes more and more apparent to her. Tom, meanwhile, finds to his surprise that he is besotted with Mary, whom he considers to be above his station. And Alistair, home on a brief, disorienting leave from the carnage of France, finds to his surprise that with his first glimpse of Mary, he, too, is inexorably drawn to her.
Inspired by the real-life love letters between author Chris Cleave’s grandparents, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is one of the best books I’ve ever read. As you may have grasped, I have a penchant for obsession with whatever I happen to be reading at any given time, so possibly you are warning yourself not to get your hopes up. Don’t be wary! Although it’s true I am a swoony book nerd who’s read everything, that also qualifies me to issue proclamations of brilliance. And this book is truly brilliant. It fulfills every criteria I have for literary excellence: the writing is exquisite without even one boring sentence, the characters are at once distinct personalities but equally charming and lovable and witty; the themes–love and war and prejudice and the nobility of the human spirit– are the great existential issues of our time; and the setting is epic and portrayed with magnificent realism. Reading it, I began to cringe and sweat and gasp as the mortars fell around me and my fellow soldiers ceased to exist in a hail of flying bone shards and blood. I was hungry and sick and lustful and strong.
And brave. Everyone is brave in this book, facing death not just with courage but also with humorous, selfless defiance. And that is perhaps the most moving thing about this story; my first-world generation–born in a time of ease and plenty–has not faced many situations requiring bravery from our entire population, but I imagine if we were, most of us would shriek and carry on like thwarted toddlers. The current political climate notwithstanding, it’s difficult to imagine a carnivorous mantle of evil sweeping down from the skies and creeping up from the shores, blotting out our little lives no matter how we conduct ourselves, but it’s even harder to imagine facing that kind of annihilation cloaked in a veneer of chipper English stoicism and a cool determination to carry out the mission to our dying breaths. It’s not that the characters in this books feel things any less than I would; it’s that they display a remarkable self-possession and strength as their world burns around them. The Greatest Generation indeed.
Oh, and one more thing: in addition to all its other virtues, this book contains the single most breathtaking scene I’ve ever read, which takes place in a bombed-out, flooded basement in London. You’ll know it when you get to that point in the book, and you’ll probably require some Xanax. Aspiring writers, take note. This is as much tension as it is possible to inject into a page without causing the heads of your readers to explode.
Full disclosure: I’ve met Chris Cleave, and he’s pretty much the most likable person on earth. We once shared an enjoyable lunch in which I talked his ear off about everything from the future of technology to geopolitics to what it feels like to have someone trash your book, and he displayed the same good-humored wit and piercing insight as his characters. This has nothing to do with me loving his book, I swear. Go buy it immediately.