The second world war is dangerous territory for a contemporary novelist: the enemies they face include familiarity, cliché and the reader’s knowledge that any number of things happened then that were far stranger than fiction. For a writer to succeed in setting a tale in a period of heightened emotions, they need first to keep their own emotions under close control. Ian McEwan did this with Atonement, Sarah Waters did it with The Night Watch, and Chris Cleave does it too with Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.
Unusually for such a successful novelist, patterns are hard to find in Cleave’s books. His subjects so far have included a terrorist attack on London’s Emirates Stadium (Incendiary), the story of a Nigerian refugee and a British magazine editor (The Other Hand), and the competition between two Olympic cyclists (Gold). If there is one thing, though, that links Cleave’s books, it is his focus on the small human dramas that play out at the heart of great and often traumatic events. For this book he mines his own family history, in particular that of a grandfather who served with the Royal Artillery in Malta and a grandmother who drove ambulances during the Blitz.
The story is an adroit mixture of the conventional — love during wartime, London under the bombs, the hardships of battle — and the unusual: Cleave looks at what happened to the children who weren’t evacuated from the capital to the countryside, at the lives of the city’s few black inhabitants, and at an unfamiliar theatre of war, namely Malta under siege. His themes revolve around the characters of Mary North, a high-born and high-spirited girl on the verge of womanhood who seeks wartime adventure; Tom Shaw, a thoughtful and grave young official in the education authority; and Alistair Heath, Tom’s friend, a picture conservator and a man of fine if complicated feelings.
Mary’s dreams of glamorous war service are quickly dashed when she is appointed not to “the Ministry of Wild Intrigue” but to teach at a London primary school. Then, as a result of not toeing the line, she is demoted to taking charge of a handful of afflicted children who have remained in London: “half a class of retards, cripples and pariahs” and, furthest beyond the pale, Zachary, the son of a black musician in a minstrel show. Taking up with Tom sweetens the pill, though — and, because of his modest social background, serves as one more weapon in Mary’s late-adolescent rebellion against her well-to-do mother. But if Mary is in love with Tom, the essential wateriness of her emotion is shown up when he introduces her to his friend Alastair, at home on leave from the army.
So the star-crossed lovers are set up and Cleave plays them out with great deftness. One of his strengths is in dialogue, and his characters converse in a crisp and inventive idiom that hides deep feelings behind blithe repartee. Another is his ability to interject instances of great brutality with no forewarning: deaths here, in various shocking forms, arrive with the randomness and impersonality of real rather than literary war. A third is his unsentimentality: acts of kindness are not rewarded but punished, as when Mary is slapped by a stranger in the street, outraged that a young white woman is walking with a black child, or when Alastair tries to stop a crowd of Maltese villagers torturing a downed German airman and in the man’s death throes receives a bite that will eventually cost him his arm. Whenever Cleave’s plot suggests two options, he takes the less comfortable.
While the novel has love at its heart, it is not a love story. The theatres of war here also include those of class, friendship, gender and race, and if all men and women are equal in front of bombs and bullets, Cleave is fascinated by how little the imminence of death shifted society’s many inequalities. Everyone in this compelling and finely crafted book is drawn with the same care, and each has a personal war to wage.
By the end of the novel, the words of Cleave’s title ring hollow; war brings out different forms of bravery in his characters but a host of less admirable traits too. While some of those still standing can forgive one another, what they struggle to do is forgive themselves.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, Sceptre, RRP£14.99/ Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 432 pages