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January book club - Everyone Brave is Forgiven

(83 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Wed 21-Dec-16 14:49:27

Looking ahead slightly (but hopefully copies of the above winging their way to our winners shortly)...

Our January book club choice is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (more details here). If you got a free copy please make sure you leave your comments and questions on this thread by the end of January. If you didn't win a copy this time but are reading it anyway, do feel free to join the discussion and add any questions for Chris.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:27:09


This was my first book club read.
I particularly enjoyed the character of Alastair. The reparte both in his letters and with the other characters in the book were amusing and interesting. I wondered if Mr. cleave has a collie sitting by him as he wrote to try out these conversations.

The stuffing of the cat with newspaper was weird but funny weird. What happened to the cat in the end? I could taste the jam when Simomson finally sucumbed.

The semi drowning of Mary with the water being used to put out fires was scary and not something I would have thought of. Well written.

I always like being introduced to new/different authors and would like to thank Mr. Cleave for permitting his book to be recorded in spoken work for those of us who are unable to read a print copy. It was beautifully read. I was actually holding my breath over the drowning part and feeling sun beaten and hungry on Malta.

The February book is not available to me but I shall look forward to reading the comments of everyone else.

Delighted you enjoyed Alistair’s company as much as I did! I had fun writing the dialogue, and I will admit to doing the voices out loud to myself. I did have props: I put on a tie, and I found it useful to wave a pipe around for emphasis. Good times. Ah, and a good question. What did happen to the cat? That’s a loose end, I think. I remember Mary boxing up Caesar along with the rest of Tom’s things. So I should think he was sent to Tom’s parents. Goodness knows what his poor grieving parents would have done with a badly-stuffed cat. You could hardly display it, and you probably couldn’t bring yourself to throw it away either. It’s probably still in the box, in some attic in Surrey or Sussex. Future archaeologists will insist that it was used for magical or shamanistic purposes.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:27:38


I found this book a compulsive read and very moving. It followed the lives of two men; Alistair and Tom; and two women, Mary and Hilda, through the second World War. They come from different social backgrounds and have different attitudes to the war. Tom is a pacifist; Alistair joins the fight, first in France then in Malta. Mary is naïve and innocent and thinks the war will be fun and an opportunity to escape from her upper class home. She begins with teaching, and later becomes an ambulance driver. Death and destruction gradually encourage her to grow up. Her friend, Hilda is somewhat in Mary’s shadow, but is the stronger of the two.

I liked the descriptive prose and the humour, which is very witty and permeates through the book rather than being attributed to one person. There is an underling feeling that war is a terrible waste, not only for those who died but those left alive with their slow emotional detachment which is like a kind of slow death – liked sliced bread, a slice at a time. It comes as a shock every time a character you have got to know is killed. There is suspense too, when you are not sure whether a character will survive. You feel you can’t take a happy ending for granted.

A question Chris, did researching and writing the book help you to understand the past of your family, and do you feel you have helped to keep their memories alive?

Thank you. Actually I found that it helped to keep me alive. I’d never really thought of myself as someone who had deep roots, someone who came from somewhere. I’d always felt like a ghost, with no strong connections. Researching my grandparents changed that. It gave me a sense of where I’m from. It also gave me even more respect for my parents. So, rather than keeping my grandparents’ memories alive, I found that their memories were stronger than mine. I keep coming back to the image of myself, before I wrote this book, as a ghost searching for its missing heart.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:28:18


Having taken a bit of time to get into the story I am now hooked. There have been some shocks and some surprises.
The treatment of the children remaining in the city was dreadful. I would like to ask Chris how he researched the conditions that those children found themselves in.

Another great question – thanks. I had some fantastic original sources regarding the state of London’s non-evacuated children. The best was a long report by the Fabian Society, written in 1941, and describing the successes and failures of the evacuation. It begins by saying that thousands of children were running wild in a London where all provision for them had been withdrawn. It lists “attendance officers, special officers, school nurses, clinic nurses, teachers, organisers, care committee workers” as the vital carers who were gone. “The whole educational system in the country of London suddenly disintegrated”, it says. And then it goes downhill from there. Needless to say, it was the poor and disadvantaged who were worst affected by the withdrawal of support services.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:29:13


A question for Chris:
Have you been called upon to justify your characters using racist language in the book? I was discussing this with someone who thought that it was inappropriate use of such language, whereas I believe that it was a necessary and stark reminder of how people used to think. I think the racist vocabulary gives the book some verisimilitude.
(Always wanted to use that word - never had an opportunity before that I can remember! grin)

Verisimilitude is a good words and thank you for using it in this context. Yes, I have – quite rightly – been asked to justify the novel’s use of the N-word. I’ve written about this at length here: but the edited version is as follows:
There are two reasons the novel uses racist vocabulary and they are both straightforward. The first is the duty to historical accuracy. Having discovered in my research for Everyone Brave is Forgiven that white people in the 1930s and 1940s used words like “nigger” casually and with abandon, it would have been a racially loaded act on my part to exonerate them by whitewashing their words. Rather, I prefer to use the language of the period with precision, since that is the best way to understand the mind set of the time. The novel’s use of the word “nigger” is reportage, not racism.
The second reason for using historically accurate vocabulary flows from the fact that any historical novel is really a commentary on the time in which the writer is living. I don’t believe that racism crawled away and died sometime between the 1940s and the present day. Rather, I think it is still a deep and divisive evil that continues to harm individual lives and shape national politics. By being upfront about the ubiquity of racism, and not seeking to soften its language or its acts, I hope to show its historic weight and its continuing influence on the way we live now. I write about racism and xenophobia without pulling any punches, because I think we need to talk about it now, and with urgency.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:29:39


One thing jarred - but the Chris is too young to remember. Yes, Alastair would have used aerogrammes, but since one paid for them before using them, he wouldn't have screwed them up at each attempt to write to Mary. It would have cost too much.

How did Chris find out about the poor black [and white, probably] children who slipped through every net [not that it seemed the authorities tried very hard to find them]?

I’d really like to recommend a book called ‘Mother Country’ by the historian Stephen Bourne. In this and much of the rest of his work he explores the little-known history of Britain’s black community. This was my way in to further archival research into the experiences of black evacuees and those who remained in – or returned to – the city.

ChrisCleaveAuthor Tue 14-Feb-17 11:30:16


Thank you, Chris Cleave, for an amazing read!
I found it slow to begin with, but was soon fully engaged with the characters. I particularly admired Mary, who had a strength of character in spite of her upbringing and the social environment she grew up in.
Having been a teacher myself, I appreciated her empathy for her pupils.
I enjoyed the attention to detail, such as reference to use of Marion Richardson handwriting script at that time.
It was a learning curve, to read about the attitudes towards the vulnerable and the black peoples.
Clever use of wit and humour enabled the reader to stay with the author and cope with the devastating effects of war on individuals.
The siege of Malta and the London Blitz were dealt with great skill.
That second part of the book really is amazing - evocative, emotional and devastating on so many levels.
Thank you, Mr Cleave.
I understand that you've been inspired by your grandparents and aspects of the book are based on their experiences - but you did you have to carry out additional research, and how did you go about it?
I look forward to this dialogue...

And yes, I did a lot of research beyond my grandparents’ letters. I spent a long time on Malta, researching locations and interviewing people. I did months of archive work. I talked with as many living witnesses as I could. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum were incredibly helpful. If you’re ever at a loose end on a rainy day, I can warmly recommend the IWM’s huge online audio, video and photo archive at - I think it’s the best thing on the whole internet.

Thank you for your kind words, by the way! I’m moved by the kindness shown in this and all of the questions here. Thanks to everyone who read the book – I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

Swanny Fri 17-Feb-17 12:08:58

Thank you for your responses and I shall be looking out for the sequel with interest. Best wishes.