I got lucky with this book. I picked it because it was written by Chris Cleave and I had loved his Little Bee (aka The Other Hand) and quite enjoyed Incendiary. Neither of these books is reviewed on the blog because I read them before I started it. When I opened the book to start it I also found out it was set at the time of World War II, one of my favorite historical times for novels.
Chris Cleave say s that the writing of this book was inspired by his maternal grandfather’s experience serving in the British army in Malta during WWII, but it is not his grandfather’s story. Of course, the novelist’s imagination will start with some elements of reality and let the story take on a life of its own, with strong, vivid characters that fill the pages with both their certainties and ambiguities. Per force, the novel shows us how war forged their characters, a little bend here, a nick there, in between bomb craters and crumbling building, in the midst of losses these young adults should not have to endure.
We meet my favorite character, Mary North, right at the beginning of the book. She is a little impulsive and somewhat innocent. She never stops thinking that she can make a difference. And she is shown to have a big heart and a great deal of empathy.
War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came, in case her mother said no. She left finishing school unfinished. Skiing down from Mont-Choisi, she ditched her equipment at the foot of the slope and telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne. Nineteen hours later she reached St. Pancras, in clouds of steam, still wearing her alpine sweater. The train whistle screamed. London, then. It was a city in love with beginnings.
She went straight to the War Office. The ink still smelled of salt on the map they issued her. She rushed across town to her assignment, desperate not to miss a minute of the war but anxious she already had.
When she thought she was getting assigned to some “important war work”, it turns out she was assigned to teach grade school. When it looked that this assignment was to be of short duration due to the children’s evacuation to the country side, she does get to teach of class of children who are left behind.
We see Mary change and meet different challenges through the war. We also follow her friend Hilda, Tom the school superintendent and his roommate Alistair who enlists in the army. All of them will suffer far more than they ever anticipated. And in the end, there is no certainty of what is the right thing to do and all that one can do is try to go forward, hope that love grows even when being together and understanding each other is not easy. There is great image when Mary meets again with Alistair towards the end of the book, when he returns from the war, as they try to figure out what do next.
Outside, an unused moon was rising. It shone along the axis of Piccadilly and sent their shadows west. As they walked down to the Embankment, Mary’s mood — which had lifted for a moment — began to sink again. Alistair could take her arm only with his left, and since her left side was the one needing support, they tended to separate. The awkwardness leached into the silence between them. The Thames, when they reached it, was no help. With its silvered crests in the soft night air it should have seemed dear, but she saw the slick blackness of the troughs, and felt on her skin the sobering drop in temperature.
There is no fairytale ending.
Life in London at the time is described through the eyes of Mary (for the most part), with the contrast between her charmed existence as the cherished daughter of a well-to-do family and her work with disadvantaged children and as an ambulance driver. She mixes well with people from all walks of life and this give her a “panoramic” view of the impact of war on the city and its people. She also becomes attached to a little black boy called Zachary who has trouble learning (one should say trouble learning in the context of the classroom, as he has no trouble learning other things outside school, such as the necessary survival skills.
And it was interesting to read a book set in London so soon after spending twelve days visiting the city. While I am sure parts of it look significantly different now, I felt a better connection to the place as I was reading the book.
Thanks to NetGalley for access to a review copy.
Cleave, Chris. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.