Some authors have very distinct ‘voices’ – you could probably open a Hemingway novel at any random page and guess it was the work of good old Ernest, for example, and others can be too busy trying to copy a popular author or style of novel (I’m mentioning no names here) to realise that they could have a voice of their own. And then, sometimes, you are lucky enough to find an author who seems to be able to give a voice to an amazing range of people – you could almost say they write in tongues…Chris Cleave, for me, is one of those authors. I read Incendiary, a novel in the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden from a woman whose husband and child were killed in a terrorist incident at a football match. I was amazed to find that ‘Chris’ was a ‘Christopher’ rather than a ‘Christine’ because he had the voice and the emotional reactions of an uneducated mum from the East End of London spot on. The book was heart-breakingly sad. Next I tackled The Other Hand and found that Cleave could put the reader into the inner life of beautifully brave young asylum seeker, a troubled little boy and another unhappy mother. I cried, I laughed and I recommended it to just about everyone. His third book, Gold, was good but, for me, it was a slight disappointment because it wasn’t as brilliant as The Other Hand. But again it was written convincingly from the point of view of two female athletes. My conclusions so far are that Cleave writes amazingly good female characters, douses them in tragedy and is almost unbearably cruel to their children. The dip in quality, for me, with Gold was the only reason that his latest book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, sat on my to-read pile for a few weeks. Silly, silly me…
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is set in World War II – in London during the Blitz, the army training camps around Salisbury Plain, Dunkirk, Malta, in fact wherever upper lips were stiff or spirits were indomitable. It is the story of Mary, a bright young thing who, when war is declared, walks out of her Swiss finishing school and into a voluntary role as a teacher. Her story entwines with that of her friend, Hilda, and two young men, room-mates Tom and Alistair. There is a lot of interesting discussion of the class system which these young people were born into – the girls into a higher level than the men – and plenty of hints that they plan, after they have got the war over and done with, to change that system for the better.
There is a dark, brittle humour throughout the book. It shows that Cleave drew on the wartime experiences of his own grandfather because the rather biting wit is authentically sharp. When Alistair discusses Dunkirk with the regimental doctor after Dunkirk he describes it as ‘An awful little town. Not one fish-and-chip shop’. The descriptions of the Blitz and the Seige of Malta are grim, although shot through with wit and humour. There is a casual, beautiful brutality to the writing – you can understand why Mary, who was going to take the war by the scruff of its neck in 1939, feels so old when she needs to make a fresh start two years later at the ripe old age of 20. Of course, because this is Chris Cleave, there are also children in the story – Mary ends up teaching a small group of children who fell through the net of evacuation, a group of the disabled, the damaged and the social outcasts. There is a particularly touching relationship with Zack, a young black boy, which seems to bring out the very best in Mary and the very worst in those around her.
This is a book which, like The Other Hand, I think I am going to be thrusting into the hands of friends, family and customers. Well-written, funny, moving – I had to forcibly restrain myself from reading passages out loud to anyone who’d listen (or even just to the entire bus….) – this is a fabulous book. I want everyone to read it so that I can discuss just how fabulous is was with all and sundry!