Darker days

Published September 18, 2016

Chris Cleave, who is known for gripping and intense novels such as Incendiary, explores the troubled world of London during WWII in his latest endeavour, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Spanning the years 1939-1942, the novel chronicles the adventures of sundry characters ranging from army officers to civilian volunteers. In an afterword the author claims that some of the characters are based on members of his own family. The book’s main protagonist, Mary North, is a woman hailing from an affluent family based in Pimlico. Had she chosen to lead a relatively sheltered life she could have avoided the horrors of war as many well-born women of that time did. However, she chooses to volunteer, first as a teacher, and then as an ambulance driver, compelled by a sincere desire to be of as much use to her country as she possibly can.

Moral and principled though she is, Mary also comes across as something of a social rebel, going as far as to befriend coloured children, which for a woman of her class was a definite no-no in the 1940s. One of Cleave’s greatest novelistic strengths is his ability to develop a plausible atmosphere by means of his writing — he pulls no punches as he demonstrates the frightening ignorance with which whites regarded ‘negroes’ at that time. Racism depicted in the novel ranges from moderate to blatant, and may well come across as grossly offensive to a modern reader’s sensibilities. However, Cleave’s research is remarkably sound and this aspect of the book smacks of admirable authenticity. Part of Mary’s rage arises from the fact that able-bodied white children are rapidly evacuated to the countryside when war breaks out, leaving those who are coloured and handicapped to face the dangers of a London that is consistently being heavily bombed by the Germans. While the world may have been shocked at the exposure of Alfred Rosenberg’s eugenic agenda during the Nuremberg trials, problematic issues of racial superiority were prevalent in varying degrees throughout Europe and the United Kingdom at the time, and Cleave emphatically underscores that point for us.


Chris Cleave’s latest work of fiction centres on London during WWII, with characters that are as gritty as they are imperfect


Mary’s well-meaning friend Hilda Appleby believes that she is doing her friend a genuine service by dissuading her from interacting extensively with “picaninnies.” Mary’s mother, Mrs North, patiently, but exasperatedly points out to her daughter that her sympathy will ultimately do more harm than good to the ‘niggers’ since it is both unrealistic and unsustainable. The heroine’s romantic interest in the earlier portion of the book, Tom Shaw, falls in love with her partly because of her indomitable spirit, a point that causes him to risk his own life while trying to help a coloured schoolboy. Overriding the social evils of London are the grotesquely ugly horrors of war. Characters get killed in disturbing ways throughout the book — some are horribly eviscerated, others suffer fatal internal injuries due to explosions, yet others are killed instantaneously by deadly artillery, and many of them are simply crushed by collapsing buildings.

Tom chooses not to volunteer for military service, but his upper-crust friend Alistair Heath heroically does so. Like many others who survived the war, he lives to regret it, ultimately turning into a poster-child for post traumatic stress disorder. The true anguish underlying the plot machinations of Cleave’s novel stems not from the sufferings of those who die, but from the pain of those who live through the loss of loved ones and even the deaths of complete strangers. No major character escapes unscathed; one has her face disfigured by shrapnel, another loses an arm, and yet another is maimed to the point where she ends up with a permanent limp. It is hard to imagine that love could thrive in such a hostile environment, but in spite of everything Mary finds herself drawn emotionally to both Tom and Alistair. Indeed romantic love is just one facet of the deep sentimentality imbuing the book; familial affection, friendship, and mentoring all count as important in the grand scheme of Cleave’s work.


“Afterwards, she stood for a while on the empty platform. She pulled her gloves on and herself together, and walked out into the streets.Everywhere there was rubble. Bathtubs lay exposed, their yellow ducks icebound. Beds in which women had been conceived and born and then conceived in and laboured in themselves — those brass theatres of involuntary dialogue — now lay silent and bent, see-sawing on bisected floors, weeping duck down into the street. The feathers swirled with the snow. It was too much for her — how easily she was discouraged now — and she fled into a café and drank straw-coloured tea. She wrote to the manager at the Lyceum, asking if Zachary’s whereabouts were known. When it was done and folded, the flat taste of the envelope gum lingered. In the maps in the newspaper they brought her, the enemy’s swastikas were pressed up against the neighbouring coasts — so close that one could look up from the page and almost smell the diesel and the sweat.”— Excerpt from the book


Depressing though Cleave’s novel may be, it helps to explain how Britain managed not only to survive over the course of the war but also rebuild itself in the aftermath. The beauty of the book lies in the fact that while no character is perfect, every single one of them is called upon to draw on reserves of strength that they did not know they possessed. Hilda goes from being a giddy lady preoccupied with little more than dreams of marriage to becoming a mature woman who displays true nobility of spirit. In spite of having chickened out when it came to serving in the armed forces, Tom’s altruism proves to be nothing short of admirable. Alistair and his world-weary superior, Simonson, put up with more psychological hardship than many would have thought humanly possible. And Mary humbly sticks up for her personal values even when the whole world first laughs at, and then reviles them.

This is not to say that the entire book is steeped in gore and gloom — there are many witty and wry moments, and one of the most endearing traits found in many of Cleave’s characters is their ability to laugh at themselves and at their shortcomings. Comic relief is much-needed in books of this ilk, if for no other reason than to forcibly remind one that depression can crush one during wartime as swiftly and surely as falling buildings. Suffering from an injury sustained during her work as an ambulance driver, Mary turns to morphine in order to cope with physical pain but then finds that she really needs the drug to dull her psyche so that she can be adequately “protected” from the myriad problems within her environment. Stationed in Malta, Alistair finds that his dreams of being a hero seem obscenely unreal when contrasted with the ugly relentlessness with which the fatalities of war tend to pile up.

No character remains unaffected by the end of the novel, not even Mary’s mother whose attempts to maintain a stiff upper lip and pristine social existence are shattered by the eccentric behaviour of her child. When Mary takes two starving, coloured schoolchildren to her parents’ private dining club in order to feed them, her parents’ acquaintances are so wildly horrified that the reader does not know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, Everyone Brave is Forgiven takes the reader through as much of an emotional roller-coaster ride as many of its characters are forced to experience — it is utterly impossible to remain indifferent to Cleave’s writing. Tortured though his landscape and canvas may be, this is the literary stuff of which future Nobel prizes are made.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
(NOVEL)
By Chris Cleave
Sceptre, UK
ISBN: 978-1501124372
438pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 18th, 2016

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