Chris Cleave writes of war, relationships, jam making and blackberries with a natural ability to craft language into something so subliminal, this novel about World War II is an ode to the written word.
It is my first time reading anything by Cleave. Little Bee and Incendiary are now on my TBR list. Cleave’s words simply melt out of the page and into your mind, creating a masterful visual, with sentences like ” Autumn has come,with squalls of rain that doused the hot mood of war.” It’s London and the war is unbearable, yet, that war can be described so lyrically is a testament to the author’s skill.
Cleave’s letter in the beginning, which is a tribute to his grandfather who spent time in Malta during World War II, is one of the first things that piqued my curiosity about the novel. I knew nothing about the siege of Malta. Cleave’s story writing, inspired by his grandfather’s memories, is beautifully layered with a landscape to match, it is of course an era that needs no special introduction but the focus on Malta made a difference to me. While it is a fictional account of World War II, I love that it is so character driven. His prose, those sweetest of words, made this a book a joy to read.
While the war is central to the story, it isn’t quite dealt with in brutal tones, rather, the book stays focused on the characters, who are quite embroiled in the war effort. I think I was drawn to the humor; that self-deprecating wit, with which each character handles their pain, the dry, barbed sarcasm aimed at Hitler and a sweetness in the relationships between characters, created a natural movement in the story. It isn’t easy to keep the mood light without the context becoming too fluffy. World War II is after all a painful reminder of that dark time in our history.
Mary, my favorite, whose rebellious energy is drawn to joining the war effort as a teacher, keeps the story spirited without becoming too much of a bore. Mary’s upper-class family completely disapprove of course, but she is quite determined. Although her efforts are somewhat thwarted and she is fired as a teacher, her need to help and a be a part of a community of children who have disabilities and challenges make the horrors of this war that encapsulates all of the characters in different ways, somewhat bearable.
Tom, who is Mary’s love interest is at first exciting. His uncertainty about Mary, her naiveté and idealism, makes their pairing fun. He makes jam. Delicious blackberry jam. Tom tries his best to enlist and is told he isn’t needed. He doesn’t feel good about it. However as the head of the local branch of the Ministry of Education and Mary’s boss, Tom’s role becomes an interesting one as the story progresses, although Tom’s heroic qualities aren’t as apparent as his friend Alistair.
Alistair is an art restorer and far from being a soldier as a character can be, yet he is completely easy to fall into. As the story moves between Mary’s point of view and Alistair’s, it is easy to see why Alistair is so likeable. He is unpretentious. He doesn’t always know what he’s doing, he leads his men because they look to him to do so. It is simple and uncomplicated. His sense of humor as he keeps the men together, hides his own insecurities. It shakes him to the core when his friend steps on a grenade but there is always an air of optimism about him. Alistair comes back to London, battle weary, unable to acclimatize, holding on to a bottle of Tom’s jam, wishing he isn’t to be set up with Mary’s friend Hilda and feeling a lot more for Mary than he needs to.
I didn’t find Hilda necessary to the story, although I understand Mary needed a friend as all girls do. Hilda wants everything Mary has, she lacks spontaneity but will go the distance. As they become ambulance driver and nurse, it gives them a sense of purpose mingled with trepidation and hope, they aren’t ready for the job and yet they are when they least expect it.
“War made one do everything when one wasn’t at all ready. Dying, yes,but also living.”
Zachary, I absolutely loved. He is the perfect addition to this cast of characters and his story lends the novel a worthiness that is missed in the beginning. Mary is drawn to her former student in a way Tom doesn’t quite understand and Hilda finds annoying. Zachary helps his father who is a part of a Minstrel show in London, which Mary finds appalling. I am so pleased that Cleave addresses the issue of segregation through Zachary. The child’s pain and Mary’s faith in him are perfectly in-sync. The hurtful innuendo because of the color of his skin is so palpable, It is lovely when Mary and Tom find a way to help him. Although in the end, it is Alistair who is so at ease with everything, the bombing, sitting endlessly in shelters, life in general. He knows the isolation, the scars and the horrors of war, you sort of wonder if Mary is a better fit for him than Tom.
Thank you to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for advanced copy of the book.
While I reviewed the advanced copy on Netgalley, this post is an in-depth review I enjoyed writing.
- Simon & Schuster, Inc.
- Kindle Edition, May, 2016
- eISBN: 978-1-5011-2440-2 ( e-book)