There’s no shortage of great historical novels written about World War II. This is a good one – probably not one of the best, but I found it more interesting than the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. Although it’s not really fair to compare one book to another; World War II played out in so many different settings and has been written about in so many different ways.
Cleave’s novel is about three friends in WWII London. Mary is a rebellious upper-class young woman who signs up to help in the war effort. She’s dismayed when, instead of being given something exciting and dangerous, she’s assigned to be a teacher. She’s not a very good one, as it turns out, and when most of London’s children are evacuated to the countryside, she has to fight for a post teaching the few kids that were left behind, namely the disabled and poor.
Tom is the principal of the school. He’s determined to serve the war by teaching children rather than signing up to fight; or maybe he just really doesn’t want to fight. He’s conflicted when his closest friend Alastair enlists. Tom and Mary fall in love, while Alastair goes off to war.
What I liked about this book: I felt the characters were really interesting and multi-dimensional. I didn’t always like Tom and Mary, who could be a bit selfish at times, but I sympathized with them. Their relationship is a complex one, as is Mary’s relationship with her parents and her close friend Hilda.
I’ve always been fascinated by London during World War II, and this book gives you a good picture (I imagine) of what that time was like. The bombings are horrific, as is the sense of fear that must have pervaded the city. But it’s also a time when ordinary people are tested and rise to the challenge, like those who serve as ambulance drivers and nurses.
I also appreciated the complexity of racial issues portrayed in this book. Mary becomes passionate about helping a young black student, who no one else seems to care about. And yet it’s not clear whether her involvement is helping or hurting.
Alastair’s experiences as an officer are particularly interesting, which is not surprising because Cleave is writing about his own grandfather’s service. He writes about the siege of Malta, which I didn’t know much about. I was surprised by how much the British soldiers suffered from starvation during this time.
If this was just a book about a love triangle, it wouldn’t be very good. But it felt more layered than that. The title is quoted by Mary in a letter to Alastair: “I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”
Cleave seems to be a big fan of witty banter, which was sometimes terribly clever and sometimes a bit much, but it does serve to lighten the mood and keep the book from overwhelming. This is not a book that is overly melodramatic, and I appreciated that. It’s slow at times, but with strong character development. The characters aren’t perfect and there are no easy resolutions in this book. Everyone does the best they can in a horrible time.
What are some of your favorite books about World War II? A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak come to mind. Night by Elie Wiesel, of course, and The Diary of Anne Frank. A book I found fascinating was The Report by Jessica Francis Kane, about a terrible incident in a London Tube station during the bombings. And one of my all-time favorites is Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of great books though.