There had to be a really good reason for me to pick up yet another novel about WW 2 since I’m not a fan per se. Although I must say, I could list some really good ones I’ve read in the last number of years, and I imagine so could you. Since this was a book club assignment and Cleave is one of my favourite authors, I actually signed on quite willingly.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is basically a wartime love story focusing on the blitz, the Siege of Malta, and racism against blacks in the UK at the time. He wanted to link to his grandfather who served in Malta, and his grandmother, who was an ambulance driver and school teacher. The character of Mary is inspired by Cleave’s grandmother, yet it is not her story. When war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up. She thought she would make a rather good spy, but bewilderingly ends up as a teacher for the misfit children who were not shipped to the countryside. She ends up fighting a war within a war, defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.
This author has an amazing talent for fiction. His writing is beautiful, smart, insightful, and fresh. Although often dark, the novel has humour threaded throughout which, for me, has the effect of making it more poignant. I read his other books a long time ago, but I think they were better paced than this one. It did drag a little in the second half (a common problem with well researched historical fiction). In Little Bee, he brings his own experience of growing up in Cameroon to questions of identity and belonging as a third culture kid. In Gold, he tackles the competitive world of sport and how fraught winning and losing can be. I haven’t read Incendiary yet, but I will soon. There was a movie made of it with Ewan McGregor.
His grandfather died before he could read the manuscript because Cleave didn’t want to give it to him till he’d edited it completely. He learned a hard lesson with that and said, “never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself.”
To avoid any confusion, right at the outset I must say that this book was given another title by UK publishers: “The Other Hand”. There are no other differences and the book is exactly the same. Often books in UK have different covers, in this case it is also the title, which is not a problem as long as you know about it. The main character is called Little Bee.
I actually just read Chris Cleave’s “Gold”, and now I have read another book of his. He is that good. Cleave is master at the unfolding of a story. Just when you think everything is rolling along nicely and something is going to be resolved, he throws in a twist and the tension builds again. He has a third book ‘Incendiary’ which has also been made into a movie, which I hope to read soon.
The issues Cleave deals with in ‘Little Bee’ are important. He doesn’t shy away from hard topics and deals with them beautifully, building empathy for people in difficult circumstances and celebrating the human spirit. And all of this is wrapped up in a novel which is well written, compelling, easy to read, and not without moments of laughter and joy. In telling the story Cleave transforms what could be a sad and depressing topic, into something hopeful and compassionate.
When you are reading ‘Little Bee’ you have a book in your hands. It is likely that at the same time you have a small book somewhere in your house which is called a passport. When you are finished with ‘Little Bee’, I reckon you will never think about that small book in the same way, ever again.
With Little Bee it is best that you know almost nothing about the book before you read it. All I will give you is a small clue on the back of the book. “This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there…”
With the London Olympics in full swing on my doorstep, it seemed appropriate to read a novel about the lives of Olympic athletes. Chris Cleave does a great job of allowing the reader to not only be a fly on the wall, but also to enter the very psyche of Olympic cyclists. The velodrome is scary – watch this hilarious but instructive Rick Mercer Report which gives a glimpse into how hard this sport is! Imagine riding a bike without brakes on a steep incline, going round and round, much less racing on one!
The competition is not alone one of strength and speed, but it is deeply psychological and involves a considerable amount of strategy. The stakes are high. A small miscalculation can bring tragic results to years of hard training. And so with life and relationships.
Cleave begins the story quite simply with Zoe and Kate, Olympic hopefuls, rival cyclists, but also good friends. Tom and Kate have a daughter Sophie suffering from leukaemia. As the story progresses and clever twists of plot are revealed, the intensity builds and the stakes for all of the characters increase. I was riveted.
Cleave set out to offer a story dealing with the extremity of sickness and health, and while Olympic gold is a great thing to achieve, he wants to send the message that there is other gold in human experience as well. There is a short 2 min video interview with the author on his website which is worth watching.
Chris Cleave Website