Monday, 27 March 2017

Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

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A different take on the World war.

With the 100th anniversary of the WW1 celebrated last year, a lot of BBC dramas, stories on that period came out, to commemorate the event.

Having seen a couple of those, I had some preconceived notions about what to expect from this WW11 story.  Cleave was an established writer and the jacket compared the book to Atonement. When you read that kind of statement, you can imagine my curiosity regarding the book.

Apparently the author was heavily influenced by his grandparents and letters that he found about the World war. The author's note offers great insight into how titbits of informaton were woven into the novel.

My motivation for picking up the book, were the opening lines:

War was declared at 11.45 and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it, at lunch, before the telegrams came, in case her mother said no.

As a student of the craft who treasures opening lines, it really tops the list of some of the best I have read in recent times.


Mary North leaves her finishing school and signs up as a teacher instead.

Tom Shaw doesn't think the war is going to last. He chooses to opt out and work in the
education authority instead.

Alistair Heath signs up as a soldier and is sent to Malta,  altering his outlook and life.

Three young people caught up in one of the most turbulent times recorded in English history. They are young and naive but remain neither, by the end of it all. Do they still carry the optimism of a young generation or does the war make them war weary and cynical?

What works:
  • The title. I found it too long and puzzling but by the time I got to the end, it made sense. My favourite lines:
I was brought up to believe everyone brave is forgiven but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency is out of season. 
  • The love for the city. There are some beautiful lines that define the beauty of the city.
London was a lightening of the sky. It was the bloody last hour of the milk tooth. It was a city dying to begin. 
  • The so-called  high society attitudes
Society was not complicated after all. One only had to follow one's first name from the table plan to the wedding banns and all the way through to the tombstone.
  • The use of humour. I loved the banter between Hilda and Mary and then the letters between Mary and Alistair. The dark, cruel side of the war is blunted a bit with the use of humour flowing through the novel.
  • The multicultural fabric of the city taking its roots among racist attitudes.
Flat rubble waited for them in the far bank of the river. Rubble to build on caught no one's attention but theirs. It did not catch the light, having no promise but what they brought with them.
  • What I also liked is how it sheds light on the the dark side of evacuation - discriminating between who could go and couldn't
What doesn't:
  • Action follows very subtly and quickly. After reading a long description about how the characters feel or the city is turning into ruins, the plot moves forward without warning. Perhaps that is a stylistic thing, but as a reader, it took some getting used to.
  • There were times when the pace seemed to lag a bit and attention meandering. However, that did not deter me from enjoying the structure and the writing style. That alone kept me going till the end. 
Overall, a great piece of writing. It is not your average read, so quick-read, plot oriented book lovers may well steer clear. But for those who love to savour and linger over paragraphs, relish that aftertaste of reading good prose, well, this one's bound to tickle your taste buds.

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