Novel brings World War II-era London into sharp reality for readers

Growing up in London, Chris Cleave watched movies about World War II featuring heroic, square-jawed British characters.

But as he conducted research for a novel set during the London Blitz of 1940-41, he realized the movies had gotten quite a bit wrong.

“They were scared at first,” he said of his countrymen during Britain’s initial wartime experience. “They learned to be brave. I wanted to chart their course into bravery.”

The result was “Everyone Brave is Forgiven,” which was published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Cleave came to speak about his fourth novel at the March 16 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

Through his perusal of letters, audio recordings and other archival materials, as well as interviews with World War II veterans, Cleave learned that at first, soldiers spoke in a way that was almost cocky, a sort of false bravery, about how they would “stick it to Jerry,” as the Germans were called.

“The tone of their language changed radically after they’d been in battle for the first time,” said Cleave in an interview before his talk. “When they realized it’s bloody and chaotic and unfair and frightening.”

The story is loosely based on the lives of Cleave’s maternal grandparents, David and Mary Hill. He was a captain in the Royal Artillery, who was trapped on the island of Malta for two years during a siege by German and Italian forces, and she was a teacher. He also wove in details from the lives of his father’s parents (his paternal grandmother drove an ambulance during the war). But the details of the love story and plot points were pure fiction.

Cleave pulls the reader into the action from the first paragraph of the opening page: “War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came, in case her mother said no. She left finishing school unfinished. Skiing down from Mont-Choisi, she ditched her equipment at the foot of the slope and telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne. Nineteen hours later she reached St. Pancras, in clouds of steam, still wearing her Alpine sweater. The train’s whistle screamed. London, then. It was a city in love with beginnings.”

Through the lives of his characters, Cleve sought to portray the reality of life in London - and on Malta - during the war, for those who experienced it. As the city endured the horror of 256 days of bombing over a nine-month period, many despaired that England might lose the war.

“I was trying to capture that sense of dread and uncertainty, that we might lose. You don’t see that in the movies,” he said.

“Before America came into the war, we were losing,” he said. “America saved us. By the end of 1941, you could have blown us away with a carefully timed sneeze.”

In attempting to portray life as it really was in the late 1930s and early 1940s in London, Cleave also wrote about the racism that existed in Britain. In his research, he found out that the N-word was commonly used to refer to blacks, as well as accounts of black families who were actually kicked out of air-raid shelters because of the color of their skin.

“I’m pleased to report we’ve made progress on that front in Britain since that time,” Cleave said.

One of his motivations for writing the book, Cleave said, was his desire to show a time when British society came together, in contrast to today, when the country is divided over such issues as Brexit and immigration. During his book tour, he said, he has had a chance to talk to Americans of all political stripes, and get a taste of the divisions that exist on this side of the pond as well.

“I don’t have the answer, but my question is, how are we ever going to stick this thing back together?” said Cleave, who now lives in London with his wife, a French national, and three children.

He once asked David Hill, his grandfather, who is now deceased, how he and his grandmother managed to have a happy life and marriage during such trying times.

His grandfather’s response?

“We learned the secret of being happy whenever bombs weren’t directly falling on our coordinates.”

For more information, visit www.chriscleave.com.

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