Authors: Chris Cleave
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General
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From the author of the #1
New York Times
, a spellbinding novel about three unforgettable individuals thrown together by war, love, and their search for belonging in the ever-changing landscape of WWII London.
It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.
Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.
A sweeping epic with the kind of unforgettable characters, cultural insights, and indelible scenes that made
so incredible, Chris Cleave’s latest novel explores the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the elite, the embattled.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
is a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love, loss, and incredible courage.
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Chris Cleave is the author of
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
, and the #1
New York Times
. He lives with his wife and three children in Kingston-upon-Thames, England. Visit him at
or on Twitter
I am thrilled to present you with an early copy of
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave.
In this magnificent novel, Chris has created unforgettable characters and put them in unforgiving circumstances—just as he did in Little Bee.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
begins in London in 1939, at the declaration of war, when a posh young socialite named Mary impetuously volunteers. Assigned a role teaching, Mary has barely memorized her students’ names before they’re evacuated to the countryside. But then some children return. The deformed, the disabled, the nonwhites. Mary fills her London classroom with a handful of children who were not welcomed into the homes of their countrymen even as the bombs begin to fall.
Mary’s relationship with a young black American boy named Zachary and her romantic entanglements—with her middle-class boss, Tom, and then with Tom’s debonair roommate, Alistair, who returns from the battlefront a haunted man—fuel the plot of this page-turner. As the war rages on, these characters endure everyday horrors and small serendipities in equal parts.
As with any Cleave novel, as you read you will laugh and you will cry, and you will find yourself immersed in a story that feels palpably real and important. I couldn’t be more excited to share this novel with you. Thank you in advance—I can’t wait to hear what you think.
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One day during the harrowing siege of Malta my maternal grandfather, Captain Hill of the Royal Artillery, was assigned to mind Randolph Churchill, the brilliant but dissipated son of the British Prime Minister. “Look after him, David,” said the Major General who conferred this extraordinary duty, “and if at all possible keep him out of trouble.”
The novel began with me wondering what that instruction meant, exactly. The Axis had maintained a two-year stranglehold on the island of Malta, reducing garrison and islanders alike to a state of advanced starvation. Into this theatre poor Randolph was parachuted, groggy and overweight. It was hot and he wanted to go swimming, so my grandfather took him to the beach the officers used, where a thin strip had been left between the mines and the barbed wire entanglements.
Randolph was visiting Malta to recruit for the fledgling SAS. The prospect on offer to the starving officers was hard to refuse: full rations and a ticket off the island, in exchange for becoming a commando. Having helped Randolph to shop this deal around, my grandfather felt it would be churlish not to volunteer himself, and was later dropped behind enemy lines in North Africa.
Randolph was known to be fantastically brave, prone to strolling through gunfire to deliver orders. On Malta he might cheerfully get himself killed or—much worse—captured. In the pivotal phase of World War II, the Prime Minister’s son would have made a hostage of some significance. My grandfather had been issued with a good education, a Webley Mk IV revolver and a delightfully ambiguous order.
This novel, then, started out as a sort of stage play exploring the power dynamic between the two men. Yet in the end Randolph was the wrong central character. I found that I was more interested in my grandfather—a man who was brave despite his handicap of finding life full of opportunities to tell funny stories and build ice yachts and read
Charlie & The Chocolate Factory
to his grandchildren. In the novel something of Randolph found its way into the character of Simonson, but I leave the man himself—a great man in his way—to his excellent biographers.
Instead I went to Malta and spent some time trying to understand my grandfather’s experience. Elderly islanders were kind and answered my questions patiently and in detail—I belong to the last generation of writers who can still talk to people who lived through the Second World War. I switched off my mobile phone and slept only in places where my grandfather had been billeted.
Both my grandfathers served in artillery. Wherever they were stationed one still finds the great concrete emplacements on which the guns were levelled, and the walls and crenulations that defended them. And so it was possible, when my grandfather told me that he was stationed in a certain spot on Malta, to go and find that exact place.
I spent time in the military cemeteries, too. In a memoir my grandfather had recorded in pen the names of some of the dead who were known to him, and I had typed it up. Here were those familiar names carved into stone: I traced them with my hands. The sadness of the war came over me in a way that I have heard other people speak of in relation to such places. Still, it was surprising and overwhelming.
I noticed that the cemeteries in Malta are different from Allied war graves elsewhere, in that four, five or even six men lie under each stone. I asked about it and was told with a grin to try digging a hole anywhere I liked on the island. I discovered that there is seldom more than six inches of topsoil above Malta’s yellow rock. Men on starvation rations had simply done the best they could, breaking up the limestone with blunt picks. This was how I came to feel about writing the book. It would inevitably fall short of doing justice to its subject. But perhaps that is the work of a novelist after all—to dig one small hole that must host a great number of men.
On my last day on the island I went to Bingemma, where my grandfather had been stationed for a while in an old Victorian fort, high on an escarpment overlooking a wide plain. I had my pad with me and I had envisaged the fort’s ramparts as the place where I would begin writing the novel. But I found that the fort is private property now, crumbling and fenced off with barbed wire, guarded by dogs of the species that asks questions later.
The wind made vortices of dust and carrier bags in the lee of the decaying walls. The drawbridge was blocked by fly-tipped rubble and kitchen appliances. The moat where my grandfather had raised a thin and desperate crop was overgrown—and not just by scrub but by mature trees now. There were syringes on the ground. It was a forsaken and desecrated place. I didn’t start the novel there after all—I realized I still didn’t know how to begin. Instead I picked up a small stone that had fallen from the crumbling walls and took it home for my grandfather. In the end I never gave it to him. I was worried it would sadden him to see the photos and to learn how derelict his fort had become. Probably I needn’t have worried. There’s every chance he would have been tickled to learn he had outlasted the place.
My grandfather died while I was writing the novel—but, as he might have remarked, it wasn’t necessarily my fault. I regret that he never saw the book. I had finished the third draft of what turned out to be five, but I had decided to wait until the novel was perfect before I gave it to him to read. What a fool I am. If you will forgive the one piece of advice a writer is qualified to give: never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself.
David Hill really did sail a fourteen-foot dinghy between floating mines, for fun, in the sparkling seas off Malta. He really did verify St. Paul’s account of his shipwreck in Acts 27 by reference to the relevant Admiralty chart. He really did volunteer on the day war was declared, and for reasons that remain mysterious he really did once go absent without leave for five weeks—and upon his return (for reasons equally obscure) his Colonel greeted him by glancing at his watch and asking “Why are you late?”
Apart from these and the above-related facts, the character of Alistair in the novel has little in common with my grandfather, and certainly the book’s plot is an invention. The novel is inspired by my grandfather and it would not exist without him, but it is not at all based on his true story.
The story begins in London, of course. Mary North became its central character for the same reason Randolph Churchill did not: that bravery is more subtle when one has a great deal to live for. Also, I had learned by now that I should draw on my family’s history rather than presume to know the world’s. If I could dig only a small hole, then it might at least have careful edges. The character of Mary is inspired by my paternal grandmother, Margaret Slater, who drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, and by my maternal grandmother, Mary West, a teacher who ran her own school and kindergarten.
Neither of my grandmothers could ever be persuaded to talk about the war, or if they did then it was simply to fend off our questions with a smile and a wave of the hand. Talking with them as children we got the impression that the war had been brief, uncomfortable and not worth wasting breath on—like a camping holiday that had been marred by rain. One would not guess that Margaret, an artist, had driven an ambulance through bombs. One would never suspect that Mary’s first fiancé had been killed at her side in a cinema in an air raid on East London, which nearly killed her too and of which she always bore the scars.
When the real-life Mary became engaged again, to my grandfather David in the blackout of 1941, her engagement ring had nine diamonds—one for every time they had met. Days later David boarded a troopship for Malta and they didn’t meet again for more than three years. Theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread. They had to have enormous faith in life and in each other. They wrote letters in ink, and these missives might take weeks or months to get through if they made it at all. Because a letter meant so much they poured themselves into each one—as if there might be no more paper, no more ink, no more animating hand.
We still have every letter that David sent to Mary. Of her replies to him we have none at all—the whole treasured bundle of them traveled from Malta on a different ship from David’s, and halfway home they were sunk by a U-boat.