All that said, even though it took me an agonizingly long time to listen to, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been a bunch of WWII bestsellers lately; besides this one, I've also read All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, but I have to say, I liked this one best: the setting, the plot, the characters, and the treatment of hard subject matter were all just really well done.
The book jacket claims that this is a "novel about three lives entangled during World War II," but I would argue that it's really about just two: Mary North and Alistair Heath. I think the third character the summary refers to is Tom Shaw, who is Mary's boyfriend and Alistair's best friend, but although he certainly plays a critical role in both of their lives, the story is never really told from his perspective, whereas it travels back and forth between Mary and Alistair. If Tom is noted as a main character, I feel like you also have to mention Hilda (Mary's best friend) and Zachary (a young student whom Mary tutors).
But really, I'm getting ahead of myself since I haven't actually told you anything about anyone.
The story opens with this line (which I quite like): "War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon." Mary lives in London and comes from a wealthy family. But I love that opening sentence because I think it sums up Mary so perfectly: she's feisty; she doesn't think twice when it comes to making a decision; she's willing to work hard and fulfill her duty; and she doesn't care much about propriety or social standards.
Mary is hoping she'll be assigned as a liaison, or possibly even a spy, but instead she gets sent to a school. It's not quite as glamorous as she was hoping for, but she discovers that she really enjoys teaching children. However, just a few days into her responsibilities, the children are evacuated to the countryside, and the headmistress dismisses Mary from her post: "I like you, Mary. Enough to tell you that you will never be any good as a teacher. Find something more suited to your many gifts." And so, just like that, Mary has nothing to do, and she's rather embarrassed about it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of London, Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath are good friends and flatmates. With everyone enlisting, there aren't many young men left in London, so Tom, a teacher, has recently been put in charge of a school district (most of the children have been evacuated, but there are a few left--mostly those who, for one reason or another, are unwanted by families in the country). It's to Tom that Mary goes for help finding a new position, and he eventually finds one for her, teaching a small class of outcasts and misfits. Alistair, on the other hand, is not content to stay in London, just waiting to be drafted, and enlists almost immediately. Within weeks, even before he's seen any real fighting, he's seen enough to know this war will change him forever.
Mary and Tom begin dating very soon after meeting each other for the first time, but then, she meets Alistair on his first leave back to London, and, even though he was actually set up with her best friend, Hilda, she begins secretly writing him.
One thing that almost all of my friends have mentioned after reading this book is the smart and witty dialogue, and that was definitely one of my favorite parts as well. Between the daily bombings in London and the horrible assault on Malta (where Alistair is stationed), the devastation and heartache in this story is tremendous. Lives are stamped out so quickly and with so little fanfare, it sets you reeling trying to grasp it and keep track of it all. But then there's the dialogue, which, in stark contrast to the awful scenes, is light and often quite amusing. These conversations don't downplay the grave situations, but they do provide the right kind of balance to help the characters (and the reader) survive.
The title of the book was actually one of my favorite parts, and I don't often say that, mostly because it's usually pretty obvious why a book bears a certain title. But in this case, I didn't really understand the title until I was about halfway through the book, and then things started clicking, and I just thought, Oh my goodness, how beautifully tragic.
At one point, Mary herself uses the line. She writes, "I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency out of season," meaning, everyone has to be brave so showing mercy doesn't even matter.
And yet, it does.
As the book progressed, and the costly and fatal mistakes began to pile up, I really saw the truth in the sentiment, "Everyone brave is forgiven." In spite of what Mary said, perhaps the need for bravery and accompanying forgiveness is more apparent during war than any other time. Decisions have to be made, and usually those decisions involve death on one side or the other, making the decisions impossibly impossible.
I wanted to list a few of those devastating decisions from this book, for my own memory, with the warning that spoilers will follow, so please stop reading now if you haven't read the book.
(I'm not kidding--major spoilers ahead.)
Here are just a few of the instances where some of the characters had to overcome the intense guilt brought on by their decisions and forgive themselves, all while hoping others would show the same mercy:
- Zachary leaves the school basement in the middle of a bombing raid (all of the parents are in attendance because the children are performing the school Christmas play). Mary sends Tom after him, and then she soon follows. A bomb hits the school, killing everyone inside. Tom, on the outside, is hit by flying debris and is also killed instantly. Mary and Zachary are the only survivors.
- Alistair leaves the comfort and warmth of a truck to help a fellow army buddy walk back to camp. On the way, his friend steps on an unexploded artillery shell and is killed mid-sentence.
- While helping on an ambulance crew, Mary nearly dies when her leg becomes trapped by a fallen beam and pins her down while the water level in a basement steadily rises. She's given morphine to ease the pain while she heals but becomes addicted to it and makes some poor choices because of it.
- Alistair is bitten on his hand by a dying German and ends up losing his arm.
- Alistair restores a painting for a local church. He takes great pride in it and wants to deliver it before he returns to London, so he convinces his friend, Briggs, to drive him to the church. They have no other reason to be out (and Alistair has to lie and say they're delivering maps to some other camps in order to have the request approved), but during the drive, a host of shells fall on them, one of which kills Briggs.
- Alistair's good friend, and commanding officer, Major Simonson, pulls a few (unapproved) strings in order to bump Alistair ahead of some of the other soldiers waiting for a flight home.
And ultimately, that's what this book is: it's this side of the story and then that side of the story, and looking at all these different sides reveals the great complexity of human choices. As much as we like to think that decisions are clear-cut and black and white, many times they're not at all. We do the best we can with the information we have. We reap the consequences, as awful as they might be. We give our best and hope that it's enough.
And it is. Because, in the end, everyone brave is forgiven.
Content note: Mild language (I don't remember any f-words, but there might have been one); one pre-marital sexual scene (not descriptive); the usual violence associated with war.