BookBrowse Reviews Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven

by Chris Cleave

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave X
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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A perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave's grandparents.

I've always been interested in the history of the Blitz, the period of intense aerial raids of British cities by German bombers that signaled the escalation of the war between the United Kingdom and Nazi Germany and, for those in London and elsewhere, a period of disruption and anxiety that can be hard for many modern-day readers to imagine. British author Chris Cleave has done that work for us, utilizing the backdrop of the Blitz and the Siege of Malta to explore the wreckage war makes of the human heart.

One well-known result of the lead-up to the Blitz was the evacuation of thousands of children from urban centers to stay with strangers in rural homes and, it was hoped, escape the impending bombings. With Everyone Brave is Forgiven Cleave explores a lesser-known aspect of that history: what happened to the children (including those with a variety of physical and mental ailments, as well as racial and ethnic minorities) who were unable to find rural families willing to offer them a home away from home. Eighteen-year-old Mary North, who signs up for public service to escape her stifling aristocratic home life, finds herself teaching such a group in an abandoned, ramshackle school – including children who, today, would receive diagnoses of autism, Down syndrome, or dyslexia. Mary, who is as determined as she is beautiful, gets this post (despite having few professional qualifications) thanks to the help of a young education ministry official named Tom Shaw, who has fallen head over heels in love with her.

Mary soon returns Tom's affections, and the two seem well on their way to achieving a fragile sort of happiness despite the threats that surround them; but that all changes when Mary finally meets Tom's best friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator turned military officer, who is about to embark on a posting to the tiny Mediterranean island country of Malta, which is viewed as strategically important by both the Allied and Axis powers.

Told in chapters largely alternating between Mary and Alistair's points of view (with additional insights from Tom, as well as Mary's best friend Hilda, with whom she has a rich but complicated relationship), Everyone Brave Is Forgiven consistently upends the reader's expectations. What is set up as a fairly conventional love triangle plot soon becomes something else entirely, as Alistair and Mary, both deeply scarred by what they've seen and done on the battlefront as well as on the home front, must consider whether falling in love in wartime is ultimately a selfish act or a heroic one.

Cleave pulls no punches in describing the devastation of war, depicting violent acts, horrific circumstances, and the equally catastrophic effects they have on people's lives both on the battlefield and at home. Despite (or perhaps because of) the grand and gruesome backdrop against which the interpersonal dramas of Mary and Alistair play out, their love story is, in fact, less captivating than each one's individual story of loss, redemption, and rehabilitation. Inspired in part by Cleave's own grandparents, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven becomes a far more universal story, one that sheds new light on a well-known part of history, but that illustrates human phenomena – fear, paralysis, mistrust, hope – that are hardly unique to a specific time and place.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in May 2016, and has been updated for the March 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Malta During World War II

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