‘War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon‘. So begins Chris Cleave’s brilliant, immensely satisfying fourth novel. Inspired by family wartime letters and diaries, Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story of four friends caught up in the war; each heartbreakingly courageous in the face of its vivid cruelties, and captures everything of the resilience and pluck of that time, both on the front line and on the home front. Powerful and moving, it’s note perfect: the dialogue has all the clipped subtlety of a Mrs Miniver or In Which We Serve or of Greene and Balchin, yet underpinned by its characters human frailty and a wry, mordant sense of humour too.
What’s more, Cleave cleverly pries beneath the familiar backdrop of the Blitz and the front, and shows us the forgotten stories: the plight of black (and disabled) children, not considered ‘suitable’ for evacuation to the country and the increasingly grim privations of the Siege of Malta.
Whilst the book’s plot is an invention, its genesis was Cleave’s way of connecting to his grandparent’s wartime experiences – his grandfather was stationed in Malta, his paternal grandmother, Margaret Slater, drove ambulances in the Blitz and his maternal grandmother, Mary West, was a teacher who ran her own school and kindergarten. As Cleave says in his afterword, ‘Theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread. They had to have enormous faith in life and in one another. they wrote letters in ink, and these missives might take weeks or months to get through if they made it at all. Because a letter meant so much, they poured themselves into each one – as f there might be no more paper, no more ink, no more animating hand.‘
It’s rare I put everything aside so I can finish a novel in a single day (I wish Middlemarch would have the same effect, for all Virginia Woolf called it ‘one of the few English novels for grown-up people’), but Cleave’s involving characters hold you captive in their world and you can’t bear to put the book down until you’ve discovered what happens to them, admired their courage and asked yourself the question; would I have been as brave if I were in their shoes? I can’t help but feel I would have found myself falling short of the standard set by Mary, Alistair, Tom and Hilda.
In his afterword, Cleave writes, “If you will forgive the one piece of advice a writer is qualified to give: never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself.” – when asked if he’d learned other lessons from writing that he’d like to pass on, he said;
“I’ve learned that real life is more mysterious, frightening and fragile than anything one can make up. I’ve learned that real life doesn’t think freakish coincidences are a hackneyed plot device. Neither does real life shy away from destroying someone just because he or she is a sympathetic character.
Gloriously, I’ve also learned that people you meet in real life are very unrealistic. The marvellous problem for fiction is to capture this preposterous, implausible and blazingly eccentric life, and to put it in a cell overnight, to sober it up until it reads believably on the page. That’s what a novelist is: I’m not a creating God, I’m reality’s gaoler.”
Join me on Tuesday 17th January to discover how Chris Cleave taught himself to be ‘reality’s gaoler‘ as we discuss the books that built him. Tickets are available via the eventbrite link below and include a copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar.