Remedies for a crushed soul: Chris Cleave’s novels and some uplifting non-fiction

June 21, 2022 at 8:25 am | Posted in Common Good | Leave a comment
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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

‘Reading too much non-fiction crushes the soul.’ I heard someone say that. But so much brilliant non-fiction keeps being published that there’s barely time to read anything else!

One fiction book I’m glad I did make time for is Chris Cleave’s latest novel: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Like his other novels, this one glows with wit and love; all three of his are gripping. (The other two are: Little Bee, 2010, and Gold, 2013.) I wrote about Little Bee in my June 2016 blog –

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is alive with stunningly original writing and much of the dialogue is laugh-aloud funny. The novel is set in the Second World War and we have a visceral sense of the London Blitz, enduring the deprivations and chaos, the insanities and losses with the characters we’ve come to care about.

First we meet Mary, an upper class young woman of whom nothing is expected but to look presentable and make a respectable marriage. When she volunteers for the war effort, imagining the clandestine glamour of being a spy, she’s assigned to teach children rejected for evacuation to the country because of being mentally disabled or for the colour of their skin.

The publisher has allowed the author to use terms that the people of that time and place used – terms shockingly racist to our ears, but authentic. The important thing is that even in this unenlightened milieu we see some people rising above their society’s bigotry to treat everyone with the same open-minded attitude, judging them on their mind and heart rather than on an arbitrary measure of skin colour or some other minor thing.

The most original, suspenseful way of saving someone’s life

Art restorer Alastair enlists for the war. His best friend Tom, in the course of his job as an education administrator, meets Mary. The foundations of a tragic love story are laid. I had to take it back to the library before taking notes but I won’t forget it and you won’t either. I could hardly put it down because of the gripping plot and the poetry in the telling of it. The author was inspired by notebooks left by his grandparents. Probably only his imagination is responsible for describing the most original (and certainly suspenseful) way I’ve heard for saving someone from drowning. There, you’ll just have to buy or borrow it now! Apart from sharing with readers a potentially life-saving manoeuvre, it’s a gripping immersion in a timelessly uplifting story about love, loyalty and courage and it will stay in your heart long after you absorb the last page.

The Trip to Echo Spring

Maybe Mary’s scandalising excessive-alcohol scenes in Everyone Brave stand out more in retrospect because after reading that I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On writers and drinking (Canongate, 2013). – Which brings me to the notion of drinking as self-medication for coping with harsh reality, an antidote to having our souls crushed by whatever ghastly things our society is putting us through at the time.

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