WWII Reading Suggestions Inspired by Chris Cleave
I read this observation in a recent review of Chris Cleave’s work: he makes you laugh while he breaks your heart. That is the way I have felt reading his novels. He’s written four now, and I want to call out two that, like Everyone Brave is Forgiven, feature strong women characters. He’s a man, but he seems to be able to get inside a woman’s head.
His 2009 novel Little Bee was a knockout, and it featured two very strong women, though from wildly opposite parts of the world. It’s the story of a 16-year-old Nigerian immigrant who washes up on the streets of London. She has fled the civil strife of her own country, but eventually she is thrown into one of Britain’s notorious detention centers for illegal immigrants.
In Nigeria, Bee had a chance encounter with Andrea, a British magazine editor, and Andrea’s husband. After a terrible incident on a West African beach the husband’s wallet was left behind, and in London, this becomes the link for Little Bee to find Andrea, who is dealing with a tragedy all her own. This budding friendship between two women of totally different background is a testament to the necessity to remain human and connected, even in a fractured, globalized world.
His novel Gold featured two strong women in an entirely different setting, the very insular and high-pressure world of Olympic racing cycling. What a leap!
In Gold, best friends and veteran cyclists Zoe and Kate are also each other’s chief competitors. They are about to race against each other for the last time to see who gets to compete at the upcoming Olympic Games in London.
Zoe is an incredibly focused competitor, but her personal life is empty. Kate, also a fierce competitor, is married, but she has a child with leukemia.
One of the strengths of Cleave’s writing is that he can examine such conflicts with humor and originality, lifting them well above the level of conventional melodrama. These women have a friendship of depth and complexity, and Cleave does a great job spinning their story.
Now I want to shift gears and talk about the setting for Cleave’s latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. That’s in Britain in the time leading up to and during World War II.
How many great novels have been set by this era? Novelists will never run out of material – so much danger and hardship, with the world hanging in the balance. Here are three I love that focus on people, who, like Mary, are serving the war effort at home, not on the front.
British author John Lawton started out in publishing, then as a documentary television producer, but his loyal readers are very glad he made a career switch. I was enthralled by his first Inspector Troy novel, Black Out, and have been following him ever since.
Troy (he prefers to be called by his last name) is the son of a Russian immigrant who has become a wealthy publisher and a baronet. Troy, who doesn’t need a job, defies everyone’s expectations by joining Scotland Yard and becoming an investigator on the “murder squad.” (Naturally, his moneyed background makes him less than popular with his fellow cops). Troy is a true renegade – he does what he likes, when he likes, including taking every available opportunity to disgrace the British Secret Service (the Troy books have been called “anti-spy novels”).
Black Out is set during the last months of World War II. A severed arm is discovered on a bomb site, and Troy figures out that it belonged to a German scientist who had been working on the Nazi rocket program. Then a couple of other men with similar resumes are killed. Troy descends into the world of international spying to find the murderer.
The plot is intriguing, but the takeaway for me from this book was Lawton’s eerie evocation of wartime London, especially the blackouts – when, to avoid becoming easy targets for bombs, every light in the city was extinguished, and millions waited in the utter dark. Troy’s stubborn and eccentric personality gets him into all kinds of jams. This is a fascinating series in which fictional characters share the stage with real ones (guess who shows up in the Inspector Troy novel Bluffing Mr. Churchill?)
Another novel set during this time, but in a quite different part of England, is The Lost Garden by Canadian writer Helen Humphreys.
This book tells the story of Gwen, a researcher at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, who finally flees London after an extended period enduring the bombs of the Blitz.
She volunteers to move to an estate in Devon and organize a group of Land Girls, women of Britain who, during the war, moved to farms in the country and raised crops.
Gwen is not what you would call a people person, and at first the Girls resent her. But with the help of a couple of friends, she becomes better at connecting with her charges. And she finds an overgrown garden on the estate – actually three interconnected, themed gardens – one of longing, one of loss, one of faith. This is a quiet novel of a woman’s struggles during a difficult time. If you are a gardener, the story of the Lost Garden is icing on the cake.
Finally, a novel I loved that was just published in America takes place in the summer of 1939, right before the war, and is based on a real life event – the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon treasure.
The Dig by John Preston is only 261 pages long, but every word counts. It’s based on actual characters in this true story. Edith Pretty is a widow who owns the land, and she has always suspected that some kind of ancient burial ground was on the property. She hires Basil Brown, a local self-taught archeologist, to investigate.
Basil discovers an entire ship buried in the earth – though its wooden parts have mostly rotted away, its outline is clear. Entombed in the ship are ornaments, weapons and other artifacts of immense beauty and complexity, and they date back to seventh century England.
In real life the unearthing of the Sutton Hoo treasure changed the way the English thought about their forebears – until then, the Anglo Saxon culture was thought to be quite primitive, but this discovery swept that assumption away. Preston does a beautiful job of conveying the awe that pervades the site as the treasures are unearthed, one by one, directly connecting the archaeologists and onlookers to people who lived and died in Suffolk more than a thousand years before.