LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2016
Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave
The first of British writer Chris Cleave’s novels that I read was ‘The Other Hand’, so singular that it was imperative for me to read whatever else followed, and that was ‘Gold’ (see review below), a superb story of the lengths to which certain athletes would go to attain glory.
Now Mr Cleave astonishes the reader yet again with ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’, his searing, terrifying account of London during the German bombing in the first years of the Second World War, and how his main protagonists faced up to Hell on Earth.
Mary North races back to Britain from her Swiss Finishing School in 1939, intent on serving the war effort with the boundless enthusiasm of youth and the formidable talents born of privilege (Mary’s father is a conservative MP), not to mention age-old connections: imagine her chagrin at being relegated to school-teaching, now that so many of the REAL schoolteachers (i.e.men) are off soldiering. To add insult to injury, the headmistress of the school to which she is seconded thinks she is an ornament, not serious in her vocation because she favours the lesser lights in her class; a young black child from America, son of an entertainer at the Lyceum theatre, and various children who are not doing well because they can’t grasp the basics.
Mary is outraged that she is sacked in the first week of her employment because her superior feels that her discipline is too lax, and anyway, all of the children are being evacuated to the country. No-one requires her inexperienced services. She is superfluous, and fuming – until the children no-one in the country wants return to London, including Zachary, the black child, the picaninny, the NIGGER, ignored and starved by his host family and stoned by his country ‘schoolmates’. Mr Cleave doesn’t spare us from English hypocrisy of the time: evacuating precious white children was paramount; those of a different hue or intellectual capacity were returned to the bombing after being refused sanctuary in the country, As Mary says: ‘I see negro children cowering in basements while white children sojourn in the country, and yet both camps beg me not to rock the boat. Look at us, won’t you? We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.’
Needless to say, Mary has few friends who share her opinions but because she is young and VERY pretty she has many admirers, two of whom become entangled, to their detriment. I have to say that Mary and her friend Hilda and their male admirers seem more than a little contrived, despite two of the characters being based on Mr Cleave’s grandparents: Mary and Hilda’s cut-glass accents lacerate us every time they open their mouths and everyone is more witty than a bag full of George Bernard Shaws and Oscar Wildes. While I delighted in Mr Cleave’s brilliant dialogue it doesn’t always ring true, especially when his male protagonists suffer starvation and the death of comrades whilst trying to defend Malta during its terrible Blockade.
Having said that, Mr Cleave still manages to communicate with horrifying and superb imagery the terrible privation and losses suffered by London’s population during the Blitz, the desperation and sheer exhaustion of those called on to perform impossible rescue feats, and the fabled stiff-upper-lip so prized by all Britons – for those of their own colour. How the world has changed in seventy years, and how glad we are that it has. FOUR STARS
Gold, by Chris Cleave.
A few years ago I read a book by Chris Cleave called ‘The Other Hand’ (‘Little Bee’ in the U.S.A.), a story that has stayed with me because of its unforgettable characters (especially little Bee); the horror and brutality of the circumstances that turn people, particularly children, into refugees; and how they fare afterwards in a supposedly caring world.
I have been waiting patiently for Mr Cleave to produce his next opus, and here it is: he pursues a completely different path this time, but as before commands the reader’s full attention and doesn’t relinquish it until the last page.
The London Olympics of 2012 are fast approaching, and three of Britain’s top cyclists are training hard for what will be their last big competition; they are into their 30’s now, and despite huge former success and gold medals in previous Olympic competition, they know that this meeting will be their Swansong.
Zoë Castle is Miss Photo Op, the rock star of the trio, the athlete everyone wants to be – but no man wants to really know, unless it is to boast on FaceBook that they have worn her medals while they serviced her. She is obsessively, destructively competitive and has no friends except her long-suffering rival Kate Argall, who through a superhuman feat of selflessness – or martyrdom, remains her steadfast ally, in spite of Zoë’s constant insults, backstabbing and, at one earlier point, her attempt to steal Kate’s man – just because he was Kate’s.
And that man, Jack Argall, is the third cyclist, brilliant, committed to his sport, to Kate, who is now his wife, and utterly committed and devoted to their daughter Sophie, 8 years old and battling leukaemia.
They all want to win gold for the last time, though in Kate’s case, it would be the only time; she was looking after baby Sophie for the Athens Olympics, then opted out of Beijing when Sophie was diagnosed with her terrible disease. She is now in the form of her life and knows full well this will be her last chance.
Zoë wants to win, yearns to win, needs to win again, because without victory she has nothing; her life is meaningless without competition and victory by fair means or intimidation. She cannot contemplate a future without being a winner: a future down amongst the earthlings instead of soaring among the stars is unthinkable.
Mr Cleave handles his trio’s relationships, secrets and dilemmas with skill and insight; he avoids the obvious tear-jerker element when writing of Sophie’s illness and her parents’ suffering; instead he produces that welcome and increasingly rare phenomenon: a novel that makes us think, a story that reflects momentous decisions that we all must make at various times in our lives, and the consequences of those choices. And when all’s said and done, that should be the objective of any writer worth his salt: to engage his audience completely – not by literary artifice, but with a credible story, beautifully told. Mr Cleave does so effortlessly. FIVE STARS
A Time of Torment, by John Connolly
The State of West Virginia hides a reclusive sect within one of the smallest counties within its bounds, Plassey County. Everyone in the adjoining villages surrounding The Cut, as it is known, are careful not to recognise – or God forbid – antagonise the Cut dwellers; it is common knowledge that bad things happen to them if they do. People disappear, and if they don’t, their bodies are found burnt and desecrated. The people of the Cut keep to themselves, and their neighbours are happy to leave them alone. It is rumoured that their small sect worships an alien God, a God of blood and retribution, a God that no normal Christian could countenance: the Dead King.
Enter private investigator Charlie Parker, no stranger to battling the forces of evil, and recently terribly injured in his efforts to vanquish his enemies. He comes to Plassey County to find his client, a man just released from prison after serving a trumped-up sentence for child molestation. His only request of Charlie is to look into the disappearance of two women who were dear to him while he was inside; women who didn’t believe that he was guilty of the heinous crimes of which he was accused. He also tells Charlie that if he disappears, then he has been kidnapped, probably by The Cut, and his life will be over. Charlie and his two murderous sidekicks Louis and Angel, are ready as always to ferret out the truth and find out where the bodies are hidden, not to mention adding a few corpses of their own to the growing pile.
Last, but certainly never least, Charlie’s two daughters, one living and one dead watch over him with varying degrees of anxiety – at least on the part of Jennifer, the little daughter murdered many years before. (You really DO have to read these books from the beginning!) Samantha, daughter # 2, seems to have more confidence in her father’s ability to successfully fight the Dead King; she has quite exceptional powers of her own, which have yet to be tested.
John Connolly has always described his Charlie Parker tales as ‘odd little books’: maybe they are for some but for legions of his fans around the world, odd is good! (see 2014 review below) His characters are always, without exception, well-drawn and credible and each story is wonderfully plotted with just the right mix of horror and humour – and always, ALWAYS beautifully written. It won’t be a spoiler to say that the people of The Cut are eventually defeated, but horror and dread is still just around the next corner for Charlie and his mighty friends. FIVE STARS.
A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly
In ‘The Wolf in Winter’, John Connolly’s last opus an attempt was made on the life of Charlie Parker, dark hero of most of Mr Connolly’s books. He was grievously wounded, but with a choice he made whilst hovering between life and death, and the spiritual support (literally) of his murdered daughter (it pays to have read the preceding books), Charlie decides to give life one more chance. With the devoted assistance of Louis and Angel, hired killers par excellence he rents a house in a little village on the Maine coast, there to try to regain his former strength and dexterity.
It is a long, painful road back to recovery. Charlie is not used to the weakness and agony his many injuries cause him but he is determined to get better: he made the decision to live, now that is exactly what he plans to do.
He is delighted to have a visit from his daughter Samantha, his child by his ex-lover Rachel, and it gives him pleasure to have found a playmate for her; his beach side neighbour, Ruth Winter has a little girl Amanda who, despite health problems that keep her away from school a lot, welcomes Sam’s company: from a social perspective life is good.
Until a body is found on a nearby beach, and it is eventually established that it wasn’t a drowning or a suicide, but murder; at the same time a family has been found murdered in their burning house and the Maine police are swamped with crimes for which they are badly under-resourced. Tragically, these crimes pale into insignificance when Ruth Winter is cruelly murdered on the night of Sam and Amanda’s playdate, but the most uncanny event for Charlie Parker is that his daughter wakes him to tell him that a man is trying to enter Ms Winter’s home. How could she know?
Charlie is injured trying to apprehend the murderer on the dunes and it seems that finally his own life is about to end – until Sam (who was under strict instructions to stay in her bedroom) appears at his side to confront the killer – who succumbs to burial under a massive fall of sand, an occurrence that hasn’t happened for decades at that part of the beach .To say that Sam is no ordinary little girl is an understatement.
It is time for Charlie, with the assistance of Louis and Angel, to return to what he is best at: investigating murder and stamping out evil – if he can, and the deeper he delves into Ruth’s killing, unspeakable old crimes and pure evil finally reveal themselves, for Ruth, a Jew, was killed so that she would not disclose anything she may have inadverdently learned about old Nazis: Nazi war criminals who entered the United States from Argentina under assumed identities, several of whom settled in Maine. None wish to be exposed and sent back to Germany, and they will go to any lengths, including multiple murders, to stay where they are.
Charlie Parker is a different person now, after his close brush with death. There is an implacability, a hardness and resolve about him that cause his loyal friends much disquiet but they are determined – as always – to support him to the hilt in his efforts to purge evil. Charlie is unfazed by the fact that the battle may be uneven; what nearly stops his heart is the knowledge that his daughter Sam is just as committed as he to stamp out the enemies of the world, and he is fully aware that she is in just as much danger.
As always, Mr Connolly leaves his readers in terrible suspense right to the last page - which only poses more questions and enables this beautifully written series to continue. What a master he is, and what a pleasure it is to read a Charlie Parker book. FIVE STARS