Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

I don’t do book reviews very often any more. Partly this is because my reading rate has slowed down since taking up the pen on a daily basis. Partly this is because I review over on my literacy blog, and on Amazon, and by the time I get here I just want to throw myself on the mercy of a non bookish subject. Sometimes though there are book recommendations that must be shared.

Last year I read a book called Gold by Chris Cleave. I picked it up in the library, mainly because it had a really pretty cover. If I’m honest, the synopsis sounded fairly dull. It was a book about competitive cycling, and two women competing against each other for a place in the olympics. Not my usual fare. Luckily for me, I like to branch out from the norm every now and again, and after reading the first page and liking the way Cleave writes, I took it home.

I was utterly mesmerised by the book, despite the subject matter. It turned out to be rich and complex and beautiful and hugely rewarding to read, and it has been in the back of my mind ever since that I must pick up something else by him.

Last week the Amazon Vine review programme offered me his new book: ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ to review, and I snapped it up immediately.

I have been having a difficult time getting into books recently. I’ve read good things. I’ve read bad things. I’ve read splendid things, but I haven’t hit on anything that totally gripped me for an age. Until I read this. I have devoured this book, and I am utterly bereft now that I have finished it.

It tells the story of Mary North. Mary comes from an upper class family. Her father is a politician. Her mother is a career wife. Mary, when the book starts, is at finishing school, and terribly bored. The minute that WWII breaks out, Mary uses it as an excuse to leave school and return to England, whereupon she signs up for the war effort.

She imagines that she will be doing something impossibly glamorous, like spying. Instead she is sent to work in a primary school, which is almost immediately evacuated from London to the country. The headmistress refuses to take Mary with her, telling Mary that she is incapable of teaching because she is too involved in the lives of the children she teaches.

Mary is left behind, and that is how she meets Tom, a young man at the schools inspectorate whom she persuades to let her back into teaching, and who she falls in love with.

Except things are not that simple, and as well as shocking her family by her passion for teaching, her insistence on mingling with a band of negro minstrels she has been inadvertently involved with, and her love for Tom, she shocks herself by also falling in love with Tom’s best friend.

The story is beautifully nuanced and emotionally complex. It is spectacularly funny and achingly sad, and set against the first two years of the war, both during the blitz in London and the siege of Malta, it paints a terrible picture of how war can tear people’s lives apart.

Cleave’s writing is unbelievably skilful, and the story reminded me vividly of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet chronicles in the best way. The book is available for pre-order and will be published in April next year.

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