A beautiful book, and in my opinion by far the best thing Chris Cleave has written.
Largely set in the London of the Blitz and the siege of Malta, its sense of place is powerful and almost claustrophobic – people are being bombarded and killed, they’re starving and tired and barely able to cope, but still they keep going.
And they do it with cheek and wit – the conversation is sharp and funny and helps them forget they’re afraid.
Mary, the wealthy daughter of an MP, is determined to step outside her privileged life and accidentally finds her calling as a teacher.
Her class is a bunch of children – black, crippled, “different” – who were rejected by everyone when the school was evacuated to the countryside.
She falls in love with her contact at the Education Authority, Tom, until she meets his best friend Alastair, who joined up as soon as war was declared.
The love story, while having its predictable elements, is freshened by a range of unexpected twists, as befits the origins of this story.
The characters are loosely based on Cleave’s grandparents, and perhaps that is why they felt so real, and why we care so much what happens to them.
Cleave, who has won and been short-listed for several major book awards, focuses on courage, class, love and prejudice. The result is moving and funny and wonderful.
This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. It was published in May 2016.