Book Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

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“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.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival

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Words and ideas come to life in two days of author events, discussions and creative workshops on the banks of the River Thames, hosted by the University of Greenwich in the historic buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday was a day of firsts. My first time travelling the DLR through London’s docklands, my first visit to beautiful Greenwich, and my first ever book festival. The setting was wondrous and the weather couldn’t have been better. The event itself had a friendly, buzzing vibe with students of the university ensuring all attendees knew where to find the sessions they wished to attend. The grass outside was filled with picnicing families and excited children meeting characters from their favourite books. I was able to observe many of the bookish folk whose twitter feeds I enjoy.

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I had booked myself into four of the many talks and workshops on offer. The first of these was a panel discussion with Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories Publishing, Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press and Jen Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, on the pros, cons, and growing importance of independent publishing in an increasingly commercial climate.

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They discussed the advantages of being both small and independent. These included low overheads (two of the three work out of their homes); no need to live in London, with the cost savings this provides; and the ability to publish only books they truly love and wish to read themselves. The disadvantages included the cost risk of big print runs when books sell well, particularly when they are included on literary prize shortlists (something they all desire but which presents logistical challenges), and the sheer volume of books that they need to find somewhere to store!

The demise of the net book agreement removed the level playing field for booksellers, something exacerbated by the rise of Amazon. There was agreement that the decision to set up a small press was made with a mixture of idealism and ignorance, but the consensus remained that it was worth doing. Any in the audience who have read books from these publishers would certainly agree with that.

For my second booked session, Inside the Mind of an Outsider, I was joined by my daughter who had been exploring the impressive grounds of the Old Naval College and visiting the Maritime Museum. She is a medical student with a particular interest in neurology so I had given her Alex Pheby’s Playthings to read. Alex was joined by Andrew Hankinson (author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Roaul Moat)), and Anakana Schofield (author of Martin John) to discuss art and the idea of madness. The event was skillfully chaired by Guardian writer Susanna Rustin.

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Each of the authors gave a reading from their book and talked of how they had created their story. They discussed what is meant by reality and truth, how culturally significant our understanding of these things are. They agreed that fiction enables greater verity as there is less demand for perceived accuaracy. Fiction is not a social science.

There was mention of risk in publishing books that may be regarded as difficult. They mused that Sales and Marketing people tend to like genres, that celebrity authors sell. I gained the impression that amongst this audience, literary quality and depth matters more than a name.

Time ran out with many in the audience still eager to join the discussion. My daughter was itching to talk to Alex but we were booked into another session so moved on.

This third event was such a joy any lingering disappointment at an opportunity missed was soon dispelled. Chris Cleave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) was interviewed by Hannah Beckerman and the rapport between them created an intimate and utterly engaging hour of thought provoking and inspirational discussion.

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Chris talked of how history is related, that it is as much a commentary on the time being lived now as on the past. He believes that we are currently at a perfect distance to rexamine the Second World War as it is still within living memory but not too close.

The research he undertook for his book took him to Malta where he visited military graves, each the final resting place of half a dozen men. The soldiers were too hungry and exhausted to dig individual graves for their many fallen. Such details would neither be known nor understood had he not been there to ask pertinent questions.

Chris mused on how the young people at the time (many who signed up were still in their teens) became principled enough to take a stand and united enough to act. He did not believe that soldiers merely carried out orders but that they acted to protect those they loved, comrades as well as family.

He talked of bravery, how it may be learned and then grow. He also spoke of the importance of forgiveness, how nobody will have a morally clean war, dubious choices will be made. He speculated that modern warfare never truly ends as there is no victory or coming to terms with defeat as in the Second World War. This makes moving on a greater challenge.

As well as the many strands of research, experience and musings Chris talked of the importance of humour, and of a jar of jam that became a talisman. We now understood why refreshments offered for this talk included delicious jam sandwiches.

Having sat through three hours straight of fascinating talks I now needed air and a drink. Declining the offered tickets for additional talks we retired to the river bank for a break.

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Refreshed we returned for our final session titled Reality Skewed: Inside characters who see things differently. Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug) and Adam Biles (whose book, Feeding Time, is to be published by Galley Beggar Press in August) talked to Sam Jordison about what their wayward characters can tell us about ourselves. Literature doesn’t always just allow us to see the world with new eyes; it allows us to access an entirely different conception of reality.

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As a Galley Buddy I will get a copy of Adam’s book hot off the press so it was interesting to hear more about it. Set in an old people’s home, with a protagonist who believes he is a prisoner of war, the reading Adam gave us left me intrigued. I have yet to read a Galley Beggar book that I have not enjoyed so am looking forward to receiving my black cover edition.

I have read Paul’s book (my review is here) but had not, perhaps, fully appreciated all of the deadpan humour it contains. He read out part of a speech he gave at Dulwich Bookshop on behalf of Francis, who has somehow become quite real, and had us in stitches. The apparently inebriated lady who subsequently asked him questions added to the slightly surreal quality of this highly entertaining event.

There was more to come at the festival but my daughter and I had to head home, her to halls for yet more exam revision, and me to make my way out to Wiltshire before the day ended and my promised pick up retired to bed. With the knowledge that my husband would huff at yet more book purchases I confined myself to buying just the one book that both my daughter and I were now eager to read. It was a fabulous day.

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The Greenwich Book Festival is part of the Royal Greenwich Festivals; a programme of events and activities delivered in venues, parks and open spaces across the Royal Borough.