This is a truly wonderful novel that captures the outbreak of the Second World War in London which will hook you from the opening line: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. We follow Mary North, who from the war’s outset, is determined to use this tumultuous time to change the status quo. Mary is from a well to do family and rather than rest on her family name she wants to get involved in the war effort. She signs up immediately with dreams of becoming a spy or being involved in the newly forming war machine. Instead she is assigned as a school teacher and sent off to prepare the school children of London for evacuation. Mary takes this all in her stride and is even more determined to throw herself wholeheartedly into her new vocation.
Through Mary we meet Tom whose job it is to organise the schooling of those not evacuated. We also meet Tom’s roommate Alistair, an art restorer at the Tate, who also signs up immediately and is sent to France. Through Tom and Alistair we explore another side of the war; the guilt of those who stay behind and the transformation of those from civilian to soldier. After surviving the disaster at Dunkirk Alistair is transferred to Malta, where like those in London, he must survive the endless siege from the air of the Germans.
Cleave expertly captures the early days of the war with everybody disbelieving it can possibly be as bad as the government is trying to prepare them for. When the blitz does begin, much to everyone’s shock and sincere disappointment, he skillfully portrays the change of mood and stiff upper lip attitude employed by Londoners to get by. He contrasts all this with Alistair’s experience of the war showing that despite the contrasts between the Homefront and the frontlines there are also many similarities. Survival and sanity the key ones in both. As the war progresses Cleave conveys the steadfastness of this demeanour, both in London and in Malta, despite everything that happens to the contrary.
This is a truly amazing novel that left me shattered at many different moments. I haven’t read such an original take on the Second World War like this since Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, and those were both streets ahead of any other novel of the last ten to fifteen years. Cleave captures the spirit of a people so subtly and honestly and how that spirit is harnessed in order to survive. The sense of humour in the book is pitch perfect; dark, sardonic, self-deprecating, infused with camaraderie. At the same time Cleave also shows the darker side of human behaviour.
There are not enough superlatives to describe how brilliant this novel is.