Fiction — print. Simon Schuster, 2016. 418 pgs. Purchased.
When war is declared in September 1931, Mary North leaves her Swiss finishing school without informing her teachers or her parents and returns to England to sign up for any duty available at the War Office in London. After her first class is dispatched to the English countryside to remain safe from the threat of German bombing campaigns, Mary sets out to locate the principal of London’s closed school system to encourage him to open one for the children left behind — children of color, disabled children, those whose parents brought them back from the country — and post her as the teacher.
The principal — a young man by the name of Tom Shaw — becomes smitten with Mary and agrees to open her school. The school affords him the opportunity to interact more with Mary, and the return of students provides him with something to do during the day. He did, after all, refuse to sign up when war was announced, and he needs something (besides his conscious, of course) to justify why he remained behind. Why he did not join his flatmate Alistair Heath in joining the Royal Air Force, in the evacuation of Dunkirk and the two-year siege of Malta.
The novel jumps back and forth between the three; each receiving a chapter or two to cover a single month of their lives from the moment the Second World War begins. Their stories intersect — Mary, predictably, falls in love with Tom; Alistair meets the woman his former flatmate is crazy about during a brief leave — and they also diverge as the realities of life under the threat of bombing, the judgement against those who do not sign up for war, and the prioritization of some Londoners over others begin to weigh on them.
“Women fall different, that’s all. We die by the stopping of our hearts, they by the insistence of theirs.” (pg. 350)
It is that last reality that drew me into the story. The quote above is Alistair’s brother-in-arms’ response to learning Mary’s school was open to black children (among other so called “bad decisions” Mary makes throughout the course of the novel). He insists that Mary’s (platonic) fraternization with the colored community of London is a stain on her reputation and should be the source of her downfall in Alistair’s eyes. Or, at the very least, something he — like Tom — should not entirely understand. But it plays into why Alistair reacts to the discovery of a German solider on Malta the way he does, and it contributes to why the novel feels less like a typical love triangle or a fast-paced war drama and more of a introspective, character driven story. One complete with sarcasm and cynicism and the hopeless that occasionally comes during times of intense stress and strain.
The prioritization of some Londoners over others is also a peak into the experiences of the underclass of London, of those left behind on the “home front” yet often left out of fictionalizations of their experiences. Alistair’s story is one I’ve read before; the story of Zachary, the black boy who suffers from dyslexia, is not. Combining that angle with Cleve’s beautiful prose is reason enough to pick up the novel, but I also enjoyed the story for the way Cleve weaves the stories together. For the way he isn’t afraid to go there with his characters, although I can’t say where there is without giving away the major plot points.
The novel isn’t perfect; the three characters share such a similar sense of humor and speech that it is difficult at times to keep their dialogue straight, and the story can move forward rather slowly in parts. But it is one of the first World War II novels in over a year that I haven’t felt was a repeat of the ones published and read before it, and that makes it a standout in my eyes.