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“Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleave is an historical novel set in London and Malta during World War II. The author’s portrait of London captures what daily life was like. The story follows London residents Mary North, Tom Shaw, and Alistair Heath from the beginning of the war in 1939 to the summer of 1942.
In 1939, Mary North is an 18-year-old British socialite living a sheltered and privileged life. However, on the very first day war is declared, Mary quits finishing school, and in spite of her wealthy, blueblood family, signs up to serve through the War Office.
Tom Shaw is from a middle-class family and he is a young school administrator who hires Mary for a teaching position. Mary has signed up thinking she will be used as a spy but settles into her job once hired by Tom. She is assigned as a teacher to children evacuated from London and rejected as unsuitable by the residents of the countryside, returned because they were either mentally challenged, infirm or, like 10-year-old Zachary, a black American. The racial prejudice of this era is an undercurrent theme throughout the novel.
Mary then convinces Tom to let her teach some of the students in the basement of one of the school buildings. They become involved, without commitment, but eventually a love triangle develops with Tom’s former roommate Alistair Heath. An art restorer at the Tate Gallery, Alistair enlists and signs up for active duty and is soon deployed to Malta, a strategically placed island that was daily devastated by the Axis.
Throughout the novel, Mr. Cleave writes convincingly about the experiences of war with empathy and skill, especially in recounting Alistair’s experiences of near death in Malta. The moments of terror suffered by Hilda, Mary’s friend, and their ordeals as ambulance drivers during the Blitz are riveting. It is war time and all relationships are tested as emotions are on edge for Alistair, Tom, and Mary, the woman they both love. This trio forms the core of the story. Best friends, lovers, and parents are all changed from the bombings. Love is the one thing that gives them hope.
“Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is a story about courage under pressure. It is a story with complex and unforgettable characters and cultural insights. The world is not what Tom, Hilda, Alistair, and Mary were brought up to think it was. The author’s note explains that the story was inspired by his maternal grandfather who, served in the Royal Artillery on Malta and his paternal grandmother who, drove an ambulance during the blitz.
His research is meticulously done.