I was honest with Chris Cleave when I met him and interviewed him a while back for one of my book club public events. If I hadn’t needed to read it for the sake of research, a new novel set in the midst of World War II might not have been at the top of my list of priorities. It’s a crowded field.
Good thing I did, so. Mary North starts the story skiing down the side of a mountain (almost James Bond-like!) to enrol in the war effort the day hostilities break out. She thinks that, perhaps, as the privileged daughter of an MP she might get a glamorous posting, but instead ends up teaching at a school for those children left behind in London after the evacuation.
Her story intertwines with that of her best friend Hilda, Tom (the head of the local education authority) and his best friend Alistair who works at the Tate through the Blitz, the siege of Malta and the fate of those kids left behind for one reason or another to take their chances on the streets of a capital in the middle of a war.
I meant it when I said this is a crowded field (and one I’m slightly weary of to be honest?) and it’s hard to compete with hundreds of books set on the same stage as your own (HHhH, All The Light We Cannot See, The Undertaking). Having said that, he does.
Cleave illuminates large sections of the war I thought I knew about but didn’t (the Blitz only affecting, literally, half the population while the rest partied on) and his section set in Malta during the siege is visceral and compelling. That’s not to say the book is dull in detail alone – it’s far from that. The characters he populates this world with are real, human and, above all, illustrate just how cruel, random and arbitrary war is when it comes to giving and taking away. That takes guts.
Hugely worth your time, a gorgeous, real story that both makes you read late into the night and illuminates some of the lesser known (for me anyway) corners of the war with skill, craft and bravery on the part of Cleave himself.
Comes highly recommended.