Just before I read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, I began a couple of advance reading copies that were varying degrees of bad. I did not finish either one, but the characteristic that stood out most for me was that both were written without a shred of humor. That is not to imply that all books should be humorous, but humor certainly helps me enjoy a book.
So, as I seemed to be on a run of bad fiction, my hopes for Everyone Brave Is Forgiven were not high, even though I enjoyed Cleave’s previous Little Bee. Although I’ll sometimes read one delightful book after another, this was not one of those periods. Thank goodness, I found Cleave’s book not only interesting, but at times funny, at other times touching.
Cleave starts out with some information about his grandfather, who was stationed during World War II in Malta. He has used the relationship between his grandparents as a jumping-off point for his novel.
Mary North is a young socialite who wants to do something for the war. She envisions the war office sending her on some important mission, but she finds she has been assigned to be a school teacher. She enjoys teaching, but her methods are unorthodox. When her school is evacuated to the countryside, her headmistress decides they can do without her.
Tom Shaw isn’t really interested in going to war, but when the children in the school district he administers are evacuated, he starts wondering about his role. After his good friend Alistair Heath enlists, he tries to sign up but is found to be performing an essential job.
By then he has already met Mary, who comes to him asking for a class to teach. Although most of the children are gone, there are still some about, mostly kids who weren’t wanted by the people in the country. Finally, Tom lets her conduct a small class of children, mostly handicapped, and the American negro boy from her old class, Zachary.
Tom falls madly for Mary, who is bright, beautiful, and funny. Mary also cares for Tom, who although older and more steady is also more naive. When Alistair returns, already a bit damaged from the war, Tom and Mary arrange a double date with her friend Hilda. But it is clearly Mary that Alistair is struck by, and she with him. Still, she stays true to Tom.
Alistair is stationed on Malta, which was Britain’s sole air base in the Mediterranean for much of the war. Nothing much grows on it, though, and after it is blockaded, the soldiers starve.
We like Tom, but it is clear from the first that Mary and Alistair are meant for each other. How they will end up together is one thread of this story, but it has others. It’s about racism in World War II, about how Mary comes to reassess some of her values, about the horrors of war.
The conversations and exchanges of letters in this novel are light and amusing. The themes of the novel are more serious, but it still fits in the category of light fiction. I really enjoyed this novel. Mary is a determined character, light in approach but trying to do the right thing, even if it seems eccentric to others. Alistair is fairly shattered by his war experiences but still amusing.