“against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs, that change us most.”
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, is a story of friendship and love set against a backdrop of the unimaginable suffering of the Second World War. It brings home to the reader how it must have been to watch the known world crumble, and why many of those who lived through it baulked from talking of their experiences in any personal detail afterwards.
When war was declared Mary North was eighteen years old and saw it as her chance to begin life beyond the shadow of her mother’s expectations. A society beauty, Mary and her best friend, Hilda, had no need to work but longed for more excitement than was offered by the social conventions of their privileged circle of acquaintances. Mary volunteered and was surprised when assigned a position as schoolmistress (she had wondered if she might be made a spy). Hilda was less ambitious, seeking only opportunities to meet handsome young men in uniform.
Tom Shaw regarded the war as a foolish endeavour and did not believe it would last long. When his flatmate, Alistair Heath, enlists he comes to realise that, despite his ambivalence, life is about to change. One of these changes is his promotion to supervisor at the Education Authority when his work colleagues leave to join up. Having a school district to run would have been more rewarding had most of the children not been evacuated.
Tom meets Mary when she arrives at his office demanding he find her a school, having been sacked from her first for behaviour deemed unsuitable in a teacher. Bowled over by her beauty, wit and persistance he agrees to reopen a class for those children rejected by host families in the countryside. The evacuation, it seems, was a beauty contest from which the coloured, disabled or in any way different were rejected.
Alistair completes military training and is sent to France. Mary and Tom fall in love. Hilda is introduced to Alistair when he returns home on leave but he has been forever changed by what he has seen and done. The war’s progression is about to change them all.
This is more than a simple love story. The author is a wordsmith, an artist who paints the world he is creating with a depth and hue that brings it to life. Amongst the rubble and despair, the hunger and desperate humour, he makes each character believable with their flaws and foibles. There are acts of bravery but also betrayal. There are enduring prejudices amidst the dreams of a better future.
Immersed in the pleasure of reading this prose I did not want the story to end. I savoured each chapter and cared for each character, grieving when their impossible situations forced them to act in ways that would haunt them. There is no sugar coating but neither is the horror dwelt upon. The narration balances perfectly between the poignancy of an horrific war and the hope to be found in love.
A rare and affecting account of friendship in adversity; a compelling love story that is beautifully told. Although fiction it is inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences. The authenticity shines through, yet it is the skill with which the tale is woven that makes this such a satisfying read.