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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Humour. Heartbreak. Heartwarming. 

If there is one author who can take a period piece set during the devastating realities of the Second World War, and turn it into a relatable, heart-warming story, written from three very different perspectives, Chris Cleave is probably the guy to do it. Author of Gold and Little Bee, he has a way of adding a lyrical bounce to the prose moving the story along an insouciant path towards life’s adventure. 

The lens is cast from London’s high society. Each of the three individuals, Mary North, Tom Shaw, and Alistair Heath, see the war from different perspectives. Mary North is the daughter of an MP, and thinks that war is “after all, morale in helmets and jeeps". London was a city in love with beginnings and Mary was eager to do her part. She's convinced that she'd make a marvellous spy and rather disappointed when she is appointed a teaching role. She's certain it's probably some sort of big mistake but, full of life and optimism, she accepts it and grows to love her appointed vocation, taking special interest in a black kid called Zachary. 

"She was surprised to realize that she didn't really mind it at all, being sent away. It really was a giant roulette -- this was how one ought to see it." 

Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath are roommates and friends. When the war is called, they find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. Alistair signs up to serve in the war, a move that Tom struggles to understand. As for Tom, his work in the Ministry of Education is too valuable, and ensures that he stays put on home turf. 

But all is not lost, as Tom falls in love with Mary North, a most unlikely, yet highly understandable union. Tom is not the usual rich, debonair gentleman that Mary knows her mother would approve of. But, that’s probably what makes him all the more attractive. After all, she has a rebellious streak and tends to do things that go against the grain of what is expected. Which is why she is also keen on teaching-- something that women in her societal class would never dream of doing. 

Chris Cleave taps into the atrocities of war with a jab of a needle. It's quick, it's lighthearted, but the effects linger in you to a numbing sickness. There is a scene in the book, where Alistair writes a letter to Mary about what is happening, but he leaves out the gory details. After all, what can he tell her? None of it was suitable to relate. 

"The Germans had swooped on them in stiff airframes with bull whistles screaming. Under the hardened sky they had squared off the undulant plain with gray armor. They always held the direct line. They scorned roads that had wound for millennia. People and animals were spooked -- the land had no natural resistance to the pure black method." 

Through Alistair's eyes we also sense the struggles of our war heroes. Alistair thought he was making a fuss about it all. Loneliness, after all wasn't really a medical condition, he decided. One could live with it. Other men, lived with "raptured gonads, with misdoing limbs. Men lived with their mothers-in-law, for pity's sake. He laughed, which was better." 

Doctors too, told the soldiers that there wasn't a pill available. They prescribed palliatives such as finding a sweet girl in order to forget about the ailments. 

The characters are beautifully cast. There's probably a movie that will be made at some point. One template does not work for all, and each one has his/her own way of dealing with the war. But they are all brave. And with a brightness and enthusiasm that makes us proud to think of the men and women that represented us in the Second World War. Mary's spunky, get things done  (bordering on perfunctory) attitude, is admirable given the circumstances. 

"Oh, but that's the fun of it, don't you see? It's simply enormous game of go-where-you're-jolly-well-told. Everyone who's anyone is playing." 

Then, there's the practical, Alistair who doesn't let his own issues get in the way of the bigger picture. 

Chris Cleave also plays with the biases and banter of the times, highlighting the prejudices with such acute honesty. While Mary wants to help the black kid Zachary, and possibly bring him home to keep him safe, her friend Hilda scoffs it off saying,
"Where would it end, if you went after him? You're not his family, or even his species. You can't give him a home -- that's his people's job. And you shan't tell me he doesn't have people, because there are dozens and dozens at that theatre, conveniently color-coded."
Although the writing and conversations in Everyone Brave Is Forgiven are fresh and enlightening, the story does seem oddly familiar. Perhaps we do need an epic love story to fall in love against the backdrop of the war. It's a formula that has worked for countless blockbusters. 

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is published by Bond Street Books and distributed in Canada by Penguin Random House. 

Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar (Creative and Social Media strategist, decor enthusiast and book lover, who also writes for a branding blog:, as well as a lifestyle blog: T: @SukasaStyle) 

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