This is one of those rare novels that I have passed by multiple times despite all the buzz it has generated, because it looked as if it was out of my wheelhouse. A socialite. Pssh. A British officer. Sure. But eventually the enormous buzz among readers and booksellers made me curious. The last time I had this experience, the novel was The Goldfinch, and once I had begun it I gasped almost audibly at what I had almost let slip away from me. And so it is with Cleave’s brilliant novel, historical fiction mixed with more than a dash of romance. I was lucky enough to get the DRC free of charge in exchange for an honest review; thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley. This luminous novel is available to the public Tuesday, May 3, and you have to read it. It is destined to become a classic.
Our protagonists are Mary North and Alistair Heath; she is dating his best friend, and he is dating hers. The night before he is to leave to serve in the British armed forces, a moment flashes between them in which they know they want to be together; when he leaves, each grapples with issues of personal loyalty when thinking of the other.
If talent were a mountain, then Cleave would be Everest. If talent were an island, Cleave would not be Malta, but rather all of Britain. And Cleave’s use of word play, first to show how undaunted British youth were by the challenges ahead, and later in a sharper way as the characters learn terrible things and develop a new definition of what courage looks like, is bafflingly brilliant, the rare sort that makes lesser writers hang their heads and understand—this will never be you.
My primary reservation about this novel was that it dealt with the social elite, and my first thought was oh heavens no. That poor rich girl is going to have to suck it up like everybody else. But I underestimated Cleave and what he was about to take on; Mary, Alistair, and the secondary characters around them begin with a set of assumptions that under his unerring pen seem not only reasonable, but the sort of normal to which their entire lives have accustomed them. Their cavalier approach to the war, from those that serve from those like Tom who at the outset, believe they will “give it a miss”, is the entitlement that has cradled and preserved them from the realities of the greater world all their lives.
And it’s about to change.
Any other city would be chewing its knuckles and digging a hole to hide in. Alistair wanted to yell at people: The bullets actually work, you know! What they did not understand was that the city could be extinguished. That every eligible person could die with the same baffled expression that he had seen on the first dead of the war, in those earliest shocking days before the men had learned to expect it. I’m so sorry—I think I’m actually hit.
In turns amusing, poignant, tender, and heartbreaking, this is a novel you will want to reserve hours of your most private moments to read. You may find yourself taking an unexpected sick day so that you can finish it. Based on the overall story of the author’s grandfather with changes, added details, and embellishments, all of which the protagonists would agree are first rate, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is an unforgettable story of love, war, and innocence lost.