Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave was very…real. Raw. It was a book that hurt—just a little bit—to read.
Mary, Tom, and Alastair are from different worlds, but World War II and Hitler’s grudge against their homeland propel them into each other’s paths. While Tom and Alastair are friends, a school administrator and art restorer respectively, Mary’s from high society. She volunteers in the English war effort, and her job is to work with those London children who weren’t evacuated to the country. Through this, she meets Tom and then Alastair, the latter of whom enlists. Together, the three of them face the brutality of war, the pain of love, and the possibility of living a life after everything has changed.
I didn’t love this book, mostly because the very end doesn’t have a clear conclusion, which makes sense because this is life, but partly because it was so real. It’s one of the few World War II books that have made me cry, great shuddering sobs because of the horror and human kindness intermingled in the barren landscape of war.
Mary is one of the main characters. She finds herself helping in the war in a way that she didn’t expect. She thought she’d be a super-awesome spy, not a school teacher. But she finds she likes teaching. However, life is far more complicated that she experienced up to this point. Away from the carefully scripted high society life, she finds that love is messy and awkward and takes surprising twists and turns.
Tom is the man she loves…mostly. He knows, though, that they’re too different, even as he does everything possible to keep her attention and affection.
Alastair is Tom’s friend. He takes a step back from Mary although they have an instant connection because Tom claimed her first. But he and Mary keep in contact, something that helps him through the miseries of life fighting in war.
War changes these three, refining them and defining them. In the end, they come out different people than when they went in.
The storyline surprises me because the love story between Tom and Mary takes off early, and most of the book is still left. There’s a reason for this: everything changes during the 5-month Battle of Britain when London gets bombed regularly. Much of the last half of the story takes place in Alastair’s point of view on Malta (I think). Things look bleak, and then a twist changes things again.
This book touched me. Many books have this thin patina of unreality. Most books do; you read them and know that what separates you from the people and events isn’t so much time as reality. Even while major events are real, the people in a historical fiction are not real, and this helps maintain some sort of distance. This book doesn’t have that. There’s no barrier. It’s written so well that it feels as if I’m watching a true account:
“This was how a kind heart broke, after all: inward, making no shrapnel.”
“To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it. It wasn’t the happiest feeling.”
“Women fall differently, that’s all. We die by the stopping of our hearts, they by the insistence of theirs.”
I hate and love this book, both for the ways it has touched me. I can’t forget it. I can’t forget the parts that were hard to read or the ones that were beautiful. It brought a time and a people to life, a time that I’ve been seeking to understand for the last year. That makes it worth reading; it makes it necessary.