With the future looking so effing scary, the past becomes an increasingly attractive destination. At the time of writing [the hardback was released in April 2016 – ed.] the big film release is Dad’s Army, a remake of the much loved 1970s sitcom about the British Home Guard during the Second World War. (And judging by the reviews the film is no reboot – just unabashed nostalgia).
From the ‘nostalgia’ perspective alone, Chris Cleave’s new novel, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, is surfing the mood of the day. Set in wartime Britain, the story straddles those years and inspects them from different perspectives – from the men fighting on the front lines, to those left behind. Indeed one could almost forgive Cleave, had he elected to create 2D poster boys and girls for old-time charm, but instead he has crafted 3D human beings: unsure of their place in the war, appalled by conventional wisdom and yet patriotic, as well as casually racist; entangled as much in the minutiae of barbed relationships as in their country’s fight. So where does the novel’s axis lie – in paying homage to the past or in stripping it bare? To Cleave’s immense credit, it does both: it’s a reboot *and* a love letter. Cleave is unnerved in removing the rose-tinted spectacles through which wartime Britain is popularly viewed and, hand-in-hand, recalling the best of ‘British spirit’. (The dialogue, especially the exchanges amongst soldiers and officers in the face of adversity and death, is ‘rofpml’ funny).
The story contains several unexpected elements: cruelty within the army, the experiences of the few black people present in wartime London, and the upturning of commonly-held beliefs that are close to sacred:
Thomas Essom, the cripple, gripped the push rims of his wheelchair … He had been sent with another London school on a train to the West Country. They had wheeled him into the village hall where the evacuees were being chosen. He had waited all night. No one had wanted a polio boy, twelve years old and pimpled. They had not wanted him in the next village either, and finally his mother had gone out to bring him home. It had been this way for half her class … Only Beryl Waldorf, the beauty, fell outside the pattern … She had returned a month ago and not spoken since. Something had been off … the countryside had liked her too much.
The ‘heaviness’ though, shock even in much of the unfolding story, is cut with the timelessness – lightness – of boy-meets-girl. The purity of the love angle eventually morphs, browning and crinkling under the heat of war, but regardless, it’s the perfect foil for the shockwaves emanating elsewhere.
Through combat, air raids and death, as well as life, love and the indefatigability of youth, the prose remains special. Several times I found myself re-reading a line or two, just to linger on how Cleave had captured an idea; expressed an emotion; described a scene. The finesse of the (hidden) author’s hand is exquisite.
Any Cop?: Everybody Brave Is Forgiven is an unquestionable masterpiece.