In his novel “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” acclaimed British author Chris Cleave tells the story of an upper-crust young woman assigned to teach forgotten children during the bombing of London. Cleave appears May 10 at Seattle Public Library.
“Everyone Brave is Forgiven”
by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 424 pp., $26.99
During the first four days of September 1939, near the start of World War II, Britain’s Operation Pied Piper relocated nearly 3 million people from urban areas to host communities in the countryside to protect them from anticipated aerial bombings by Nazi Germany.
Just like that, a quarter of Britain’s population had new addresses, far removed from everything and everyone the evacuees knew. It was one of the most dramatic aspects of the British population’s involvement in the war, one that left lasting emotional scars on children, the infirm, pregnant women and other groups who evacuated.
But in Chris Cleave’s intimate war epic “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” the equally compelling stories of the socially and racially marginalized people who stayed behind, along with those who helped look after them, take center stage.
The author of “Everyone Brave is Forgiven” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-396-4636; spl.org).
Cleave, who appears Tuesday, May 10, at the Seattle Public Library, sets his novel in teeming London as Britain declares war and braces for a possible German invasion. The city is clearing out, with parents sending their kids off to the hinterlands for safety.
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Eighteen-year-old Mary North, the rebellious, upper-crust daughter of a Parliament member, chooses to leave finishing school to do her part. But instead of some grand adventure, she’s assigned to stay home to teach some of the black, troubled and disabled children left behind by the country’s unsparing class system. Those students weren’t likely to find welcoming host families in the more conservative rural areas where other evacuated kids were being sent.
One of her toughest students is a black boy named Zachary, who’s growing up in the subculture of the minstrel-show performers who entertain London’s white audiences. Mary and Zachary connect, and he and the other students become a cause for the young, inexperienced teacher.
Meanwhile, Mary experiences her own travails as she falls into something of a love triangle with an education administrator, Tom, and his friend Alistair, who cultivates his relationship with Mary through charming love letters after he goes off to war.
What’s more, Mary must contend with her racist, socialite parents, who disapprove of her work with the black students. Mary’s friend Hilda also isn’t too keen on the idea of associating with them, either.
Cleave unflinchingly exposes the personal hang-ups of his characters as they grapple with hard life choices. He harnesses his immense talent for crafting gorgeously insightful turns of phrase to show us how courage and cowardice sometimes exist side-by-side in the same person — even in the same decision.
German bombs eventually start to pummel London, leaving whole districts a nightmare of ruins, but Cleave is just as interested in how war can shatter hopes, dreams, hearts and convictions.
Mary’s own battles, as well as the personal wartime trials of Alistair and the other main characters, propel this novel as it pivots between London and the besieged island of Malta, where Cleave’s grandfather was stationed during the war.
Though inspired by his own family’s war experience, it’s surprising that Cleave sets this study of ethics, manners, womanhood, race and romance against the well-used backdrop of Europe during World War II. His most recent major works draw from contemporary life.
But for the author of such emotionally fraught and beautifully written novels as “Incendiary,” “Little Bee” and “Gold,” all of which feature memorably complex women facing tough choices, it’s still familiar territory.
“Everyone Brave is Forgiven” may not be as up-to-the-minute as his explorations of post-9/11 society, the global migrant crisis or elite women’s athletics, but like those novels, it is both searing and timeless.