The BEST: “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Christopher Cleave

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The Best: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Christopher Cleave
Erica Brown

Summary: Set in Malta and England during the Blitz, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a recent novel that weaves the lives of three complex characters to explore, at base, love, friendship, deception, and the emotional shrapnel that must be negotiated to re-build lives after devastating losses.

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Why it’s The BEST? Jewish readers often understand the hatred and losses of 1939-1942 in very particular ways. Cleave creates a highly-textured, intimate portrait of World War II that is less familiar but still devastatingly fraught with contradictions: “This helpful war. It makes us better people, and then it tries to kill us.” War and its high existential costs sting: “Who knows which takes more courage—to die in battle, or to live in vain? It cuts all of us in two, I suppose.” Cleave plays with hope through tender interactions that prove durable, even after all is lost: “They spoke of small things at first, since it was best, when reattaching threads, to begin with the easiest knots.” Only at the book’s end, in an author’s note, do we learn that Cleave’s own grandfather was stationed in Malta during World War II. The love letters that Cleeve’s grandparents exchanged at that time inspired him to create this fictional variation. Between the hardness of a life in London’s rubble, Cleave offers glimmers of possibility:

“It was an air one might still breathe, if everyone forgiven was brave.”

“Everything can be restored. If one won’t believe that, how does one endure all this?”

“One didn’t understand, until one had seen a great many bodies, the unconscious effort that one must be making every minute simply to keep one’s hands and face and clothes clean. The world’s surfaces were so filthy that the living touched them only with the tips of their fingers and the soles of their shoes. How grubby it was to die, to give up making that effort.”

“It turned out that the only difference between children and adults was that children were prepared to put twice the energy into the project of not being sad.”

Dr. Erica Brown, a consulting editor of TRADITION, is the director of Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University, where she also serves as an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy.

This is an installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people — click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on December 5, 2019]

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