War was declared at 11:15am. Mary North signed up at noon.

The cover of Everybody Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave implies this novel is a story of bravery and courage in

The cover of Everybody Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave implies this novel is a story of bravery and courage in the Second World War 2 … it is –  but not told as you might expect.

Mary North is upper class, her father is a Member of Parliament and her mother supports his ambitions for himself and the country. Mrs. North is the person who entertains “the wives” while the men go about their business. Mary could live comfortably in the country, rolling bandages, enjoying tea at the Ritz and marrying an “Honorable”.

But Mary has other ideas, she leaves her finishing school unfinished and deciding she would make “a marvellous spy” signs up with the War Office. To her amazement, she is made a teacher.

Everyone Brave is ForgivenIn a garret, Tom, a minor civil servant in the equivalent of the Education Department makes jam from wild blackberries he collected from the common; he thinks he might leave the war to others.

His flatmate and best friend Alistair, a conservator at the Tate Gallery, packs up the nation’s treasures, hides them in caves … then enlists. Although Tom and Alistair are educated, they are not upper class, normally they would not move in the same circles as Mary.

When her school is evacuated to the country, Mary is left behind. She, however, sees a need to keep educating those not considered worthy of evacuation and those children returned because “the country” found them wanting. She argues her case to Tom, they fall in love and Mary gets her school.

Alistair is evacuated from Dunkirk and on leave in London, headed to Malta, he looks forward to meeting Tom’s love and her best friend Hilda. What no one plans is that Mary and Alistair fall instantly in love. So far so good for “the nice little romance set in the Second World War”.

But Everyone Brave is Forgiven is not a chocolate box romance, it exposes both the best and worst of people – the type of person who can be so brave in the face of falling bombs, yet spit on the woman holding the hand of an African American child. Be prepared, this novel speaks in the language of the war period and some of the terms used are highly offensive and coarse to our ears.

“Those people” were fine as long as they stayed in their minstrel shows; they should no more expect an education in England than they could expect one in America. The racist, bigoted, uncaring attitudes shown not only to the African-American children, but also to the children in wheelchairs, unable to speak or with Downs syndrome are so cruel they will take your breath away.

When Australians think of theatres of war, Malta is not a place which readily springs to mind. Chris Cleave’s grandfather David Hill was stationed there during what became known as The Siege of Malta. The juxtaposition of The London Blitz and the Siege of Malta is achieved with truth and ease, leaving this reader with a deeper understanding of both events. Surprisingly, there are moments full of smiles and laughter, because here is an author who knows the benefit of breaking the tension with a good laugh.

As Chris says in his Authors Notes “I belong to the last generation of writers who can still talk to people who lived through the Second World War”. In this instance he not only had access to the letters written by his grandfather David to his grandmother Mary, he spent considerable time on this little island, talking to its people and visiting its cemeteries. The letters Mary sent to David were lost with thousands of other written histories when the boat carrying them was torpedoed.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a beautifully written, historical novel – a no holds barred story of love, loss, bigotry and war. A wonderful story; an excellent read.

“I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season”. Mary North

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (published by Hachette Australia) is available now from Dymocks.

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