Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Set in England, France and Malta during World War II, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven introduces four likeable, amusing characters and puts them through hell.

Mary is a socialite turned teacher and ambulance driver with an irrepressible quest for fairness. Tom, her boss and lover, is an earnest education administrator. Hilda is Mary’s hilarious but awkward best friend. Alistair, Tom’s best friend, is an art conservator for the Tate turned voluntary soldier and jam fancier. The two sets of young friends would never have met if it weren’t for the war, and their story evokes the unrelenting uncertainty that prevails during wartime, giving an unsettling insight into the terrors experienced by those who served in WWII or lived through The Blitz in London.

It is also a troubling reminder that many people continue to live in war-torn countries today. That anyone anywhere should experience the violent death of a friend mid-conversation, or helplessly witness a stranger’s painful demise, is horrifying – to the reader and evidently also to Cleave.

As ever, issues of race, class, and gender politics influence Cleave’s storyline. His depictions of European race relations, particularly between American minstrels and the London public, are distressing. Cleave confronts the reader again and again with the racist vernacular of the day.

It is perhaps the failure of basic civility and compassion outside the active war zones, and all that their absence signifies, that is the most heartrending element of this book, all the more so given how little things have actually changed since then.

Cleave has said that Everyone Brave is Forgiven was inspired by his grandparents’ wartime activities. Yet they weren’t inclined to dwell on that time, and the book is a gentle yet persistent inquiry into the moral imperatives and purpose of stoicism. The effects of war on personal and cultural identity, and mind and body, are not glossed over. However, these issues are woven through an absorbing plot that is laced with humour and an appreciation for the ridiculous reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.