When nine-year-old Rose collapses and is rushed to hospital instead of going out with her friends trick-or treating, her mother, Natalie, is understandably distraught. While adapting to her daughter’s diagnosis of diabetes, and the accompanying regime of blood tests, insulin and never leaving the house without emergency glucose, she discovers the diary of the grandfather she’s never known. The account of Colin’s survival for fifty days in a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean in 1943 proves compelling for both mother and daughter and, by trading words for blood, the only way Natalie can get Rose to accept the injections that keep her alive.
I enjoyed the story of Rose’s journey from initial protest and regression to assuming control, as far as that’s possible, of her high-maintenance illness, along with Natalie’s path from fear and grief and loneliness to gratitude and a partial letting go. I was gripped, as I was by another story about survival in a lifeboat, by Colin’s account of those harrowing weeks at sea. I liked how Louise Beech drew out the parallels between them in the hunger and thirst and the need for self-discipline; in Colin’s case not to succumb to the temptation of slaking his thirst with seawater, in Rose’s enduring the needles that leave her body bruised.
I was less enamoured by the spiritual aspects whereby Rose and Colin appear through dreams and hallucination in each other’s stories, but I can see why the author might have wanted to strengthen the connection between these narratives that, at first glance, don’t have much in common. Since both are based on her own family’s experience, I can see why she might be driven to put them together (though I was curious that she didn’t go down the route of memoir). But it’s a credit to Louise Beech’s writing that I was able to put aside these niggles that, in some circumstances, might lead me to giving up on a novel, and enjoy it. Congratulations on an engaging debut and thanks to Orenda for my review copy.
When war is declared in September 1939, Mary North has signed up to within the hour. From her finishing school in Switzerland, she travels to London, ready for adventure. When she’s assigned to a most ordinary-looking school, she’s sure it’s a cover for something more glamorous. Unfortunately for Mary, not only does the War Office have no notion of her exceptional talents, as soon as she discovers her pleasure in teaching, she’s dismissed from her post. As the entire school is evacuated to the safety of the countryside, Mary is left behind.
Of course I loved Mary right from the first page. At eighteen, she’s sizzling with self-confidence and idealism, and proves a highly amusing companion through the first few pages. I wondered, however, how what I assumed would be a serious novel would develop through the prism of her witty but naive gaze. The short answer is quite brilliantly. The slightly longer answer is as follows.
Mary badgers Tom, her pseudo-manager at the Education Department to give her another teaching post and, incidentally, to take her out to dinner. With his grudging support, she sets up a small school for the children the countryside doesn’t want and whose existence officialdom denies. A little way into their relationship, Tom and Mary go out as a foursome, hoping that her friend Hilda, who dreams of marriage to a man in uniform, will hit it off with his friend, Alastair, who also signed up on the first day of the war. Their varying perspectives broaden the scope of the novel from London in the Blitz to the Siege of Malta.
Through his engaging and endearing and entirely credible characters (yes, I even felt some sympathy for the priggish Hilda by the end), Chris Cleave demonstrates the devastation and destruction of war. But this is more than another Second World War novel (of which there have been many excellent examples of late). It’s also an acute psychological dissection of friendship, grief, prejudice and resilience, and the loss of innocence that precedes learning to live in an imperfect world. On a societal level, it’s about bureaucracy and organisational structures, about social class and racism, and the potential for a fairer society. It also takes in dyslexia and opiate addiction and the once popular, but now embarrassing, minstrel shows.
The prose is beautiful: at turns witty, amusing, lyrical and poignant (although I didn’t actually cry till page 390). Having greatly enjoyed The Other Hand and Incendiary, I knew Chris Cleave’s fourth novel would be good, but how! As a love story set against survival in extremis in the Second World War, I couldn’t help thinking of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize. I’d be delighted if Everyone Brave Is Forgiven did likewise. Thanks to Sceptre Books for my advance proof copy. You can read Chris Cleave’s thoughts on his grandparents’ war letters here.
I’d planned to post these reviews on Everyone Brave’s publication day but 21 April happens to be Charlotte Brontë’s birthday and I have something else in the pipeline for that. In addition, while helping out the head honcho at the Carrot Ranch, Lisa Reiter has challenged us to write a 99-word story about offering to help someone, with a deadline of 19th. There are times when there’s nothing braver than accepting help (something Natalie gradually learns in How to Be Brave) or in assertively offering help when the person is presenting an independent the side (the theme of Lisa’s flash). So even though it means a longer post than my usual thousand-word limit, this is the right place for mine:
Night after night on the television, I couldn’t stand it anymore. What use will you be? they said. Out there, you’re just one more mouth to feed. So I marched and knitted squares and fund-raised, but the gruesome images went on invading my dreams. I fought it with my pen and keyboard, but still felt unclean. On screen, their anguish shamed me, but what could I do? Would I swap my comforts for a night under tarpaulin? Would I give a stranger my spare room? Signing another cheque, I claimed it was for their sake, not mine.