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Bravery, In All Its Forms, Captured in Chris Cleave's New Novel

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courtesy Chris Cleave/Simon & Schuster
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Real-life letters between Chris Cleave's grandparents make up the endpapers of his novel, "Everyone Brave is Forgiven."

When novelist Chris Cleave starts a new project - before he writes a word - he tries to immerse himself in the world his characters will inhabit.

Four years ago, that meant learning to track bicycles for his novel, Gold, about two Olympic-caliber cyclists.  But it was a more complex prospect for his latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, which is set in World War II London and Malta.  But Cleave found a way.

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One method was to travel to Malta to see the place for himself.  But the English writer also believed it was important to grasp how Londoners survived the Blitz of 1940 and '41.  So he put himself on wartime rations.

"I wouldn't recommend it," he laughs.  "[they] were really restrictive.  Five glasses of milk per person, per week. Four ounces of bacon. Four ounces of lard.  I had to look up what lard was - it wasn't a normal part of my diet."

But Cleave says it was about more than his dietary intake.  "It was important to do that," he says, "because it made me realize the effect on morale.  You feel yourself getting unhealthy.  You feel your energy levels go down, and this is a book about bravery, and people who endured, and people who cheered each other up.  And going on the rations made me realize how hard it is to do that when you're basically hungry and demoralized."

In the stories people tell about World War II and the people who endured it, Cleave thinks morale is sometimes overlooked.  And he thinks that - of all the lessons from the war - offers us something today.  "I like humans," he says, "and their ability - despite being flawed - to survive these real situations.  I'm all about trying to find reasons to be unified."

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Credit courtesy Chris Cleave
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Chris Cleave's grandfather, David Hill (right), with the SAS in Algeria, 1944.

The other way Cleave found to explore the era in which the book is set was through letters his grandparents exchanged.  His grandfather served as an British Army officer in Malta, and his grandmother taught children who had not been evacuated from London.  They directly inspired the two central characters in the novel, Alastair and Mary. 

Cleave read the letters as he worked with his grandfather to transcribe them as memoirs.  They painted a different picture of the man Cleave thought he had known his entire life.

"The thing about my grandfather is - as well as being really engaged in the war, like so many people of that generation who came back, he never really talked about it," Cleave says. "I remember him growing up as this lovely, gentle man who made us laugh all the time.  And if he ever talked about the war, it was to make us laugh."

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Credit courtesy Chris Cleave
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Chris Cleave's grandparents, David and Mary Hill, on their honeymoon in 1944.

Cleave says the letters his grandparents wrote opened a window into how the war really affected them.  "He never talked about starvation, he never talked about battle.  And so when I typed up his memoirs for him, it surprised the heck out of me to see that so much of it was about the war."

All of this fascinated Cleave as a writer - and a grandson.  "It was original source material, and source material that I cared about viscerally.  It wasn't an academic exercise - this was family."

The book also illustrates a chapter of English history of which many Americans are likely unaware - the second-class treatment which Blacks received in English life in that era.  Among the children Mary teaches in Everyone Brave are several Black children who had not been evacuated like most of their white peers before the Blitz.  Mary fights her own war on their behalf, putting her at odds with much of English society at the time.  "It struck me as amazing that the English system of class and system of racial prejudice had survived ten million tons of German explosive bombs completely intact," Cleave says.

It's a part of the book that might make some in England uneasy today, which Cleave says is part of his objective in writing. "I think it's important to tell that part of our history," he contends, "because while I think that generation was a golden generation, and I'm impressed by the way they survived and I think it's wonderful the way they communicated - I think it's also important to talk about what was flawed in them, and what we have been slowly overcoming."

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