The biggest emotional challenge Chris Cleave faced in writing his scintillating fourth novel, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was the duty he felt to honor the memory of his grandparents.
Their experiences in the grim opening years of World War II, when Britain’s defeat by Germany was a distinct possibility, helped to inspire the book.
“I didn’t feel a need to accurately portray their lives,” Cleave says during a call to the home in suburban London that he shares with his Paris-born wife, a chef turned nutritionist, and their three children, ages 6, 9 and 12. “In fact, I carefully didn’t. But I did feel the need to do justice to their memory. More than anything I felt my mother reading over my shoulder when I was writing this one. I felt a familial duty to deliver something my family would find beautiful. And they’re a tough crowd.”
"I felt a familial duty to deliver something my family would find beautiful."
Powered by crackling dialogue among his characters, Cleave’s novel is beautiful, though in a darkling sort of way. The story opens with teenage socialite Mary North fleeing her Swiss finishing school as soon as war is declared and signing on to be, she hopes, a British spy. Instead she’s assigned to be a teacher, replacing male instructors sent off to war. While her mother and her best friend, Hilda, think teaching is beneath her social station, Mary discovers she actually likes it. She develops a special bond with a black American child named Zachary Lee, whose father performs in a minstrel show, a popular form of entertainment in London at that time.
“I think 80 percent of London’s children were evacuated at the start of the war,” Cleave explains. “I was looking at all these evacuation photos, children getting onto trains in their duffel coats, looking very cute, and being taken to a place of safety in the countryside. Then I was looking at a lot of photos of street scenes of London in the 1930s, and there were a lot of black and mixed-race children in the East End. But the evacuation photos were almost universally of white kids. I became curious about where that was coming from.”
Readers of Cleave’s 2009 bestseller, Little Bee, know him to be a keen observer of political and social divides. Amid the devastating German Blitz, Mary falls for Tom Shaw, a middle-class school administrator, but she is also attracted to his more sophisticated apartment-mate, Alistair Heath, who enlists to fight in France, suffers from what we now call PTSD and later nearly starves to death during the siege of Malta. Mary’s dalliances put her at odds with her friend Hilda. As the novel progresses, Cleave’s portrayal of the ins and outs of these socially and psychologically complex relationships is gripping.
“I was very interested in competitive friendships. These are very young people—Hilda and Mary are 18 when the book starts—and they’re jostling for position. In a world of socialites, where the competition was all about who you were going to marry, I felt it might take a long time before their competition was transcended by the competition against the greater evil. By that, I don’t mean Germany. I mean that the enemy is the terror and the danger itself. I didn’t want to write a novel where my characters have great solidarity to begin with and then stoically face down the enemy threat. I wanted the threat to exacerbate the tensions that existed in the friendships and within the society they inhabit. I’m very interested in the fracture lines—between Hilda and Mary, between white and black, between high class and working class, between town and country. For me, the story lies in those tensions. I think there are two wars we have to win. One of them is against the enemy, yes, but the other one is against the tendency of our own society to divide, to polarize, to fracture.”
Cleave says the technical challenge in writing Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was getting the period details right. In his writing room, which he describes as “monastic,” he has a large aluminum suitcase to remind him that he needs to get out and do his research. “I have a rule for myself that I must physically visit the places I’m talking about. I sort of immerse myself in the worlds of the characters.” So he read novels by Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy L. Sayers and others that his characters would have been reading at the time. He listened to the music and radio shows his characters would have heard. “I tried to learn what they would have done on a Friday night in wartime.” He collected census data and bomb damage maps. He researched in libraries instead of on Google. And he lost 22 pounds eating London war rations from that period.
“It was quite dramatic and not that much fun. One of the things I noticed was how much our eating behavior has changed since then. The things that were rationed were sugar, lard, butter, margarine and bacon, which are things I don’t eat at all. The biggest thing I discovered was not how hungry I felt, but how I didn’t want to eat that stuff,” he wryly notes.
"Cleave’s characters, both at home and on the battlefield, confront not just privation but shocking and unexpected losses."
In those early, difficult days of World War II, Cleave’s characters, both at home and on the battlefield, confront not just privation but shocking and unexpected losses, something Cleave brilliantly conveys to his readers.
“It was one of those things where I just woke up in the middle of the night and worked it out. I had particular points in mind where the characters died. Then I went back and just arbitrarily killed them 25 pages earlier. It was brutal. I gave myself huge problems because they had died at very inconvenient moments. But that’s war—horrible, brutal, arbitrary. Death comes unexpectedly. I just cut them off midsentence. It was a real nightmare to fix the book.”
Despite the self-inflicted challenges of writing the novel, Cleave says writing historical fiction was liberating.
“You have to raise your game. The penny dropped when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform. I’m a big fan. Given that Shakespeare can conjure these brilliant, bloodthirsty tragedies, I wondered why so many history plays, why so many Henrys, Edwards and Richards? And I realized that because he’s talking about this platform of our shared history, because we know the great currents behind the play and we know the ending, what we are curious about is character. So by writing historical fiction, he gets to go straight to the heart of character. That’s what I loved about it. . . . I discovered with historical fiction that I can go straight in there and open with strong dialogue and do the thing that I love most of all, which is character and dialogue and letting the development of the characters inform the progress of the novel.”
Writing about war, Cleave says, surprisingly freed him “from having to have bad guys. I’ve discovered—it took me years to work this out—that bad guys make for terrible dialogue. Something that was really good about writing a wartime book is that the enemy is evil itself. There’s no need to have a bad character in order to create the tension in the story. And that means that you have dialogue between people for whom dialogue is a realistic possibility.”
And the dialogue in Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is excellent—sharp and witty. “A novel for me is a fight to give the characters more space to talk in. I like to win space for my characters to talk in a way that advances their character rather than the plot. If I’m doing my job well as a storyteller, then I can keep the story going where it needs to go and still give my characters space to breathe and be themselves.”
Asked if writing this novel was different from writing his previous books, Cleave says, “For the first time I felt that writing the book was its own reward. I was really loving the process of writing it, and I was learning a lot about myself. I didn’t mind what happened as long as I was happy to show it to my mum.”
This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.