We Must Be Brave…
About the Book:
A novel about courage and kindness, hardship and friendship – and the astonishing power of love.
December, 1940. As German bombs fall on Southampton, the city’s residents flee to the surrounding villages. In Upton village, amid the chaos, newly-married Ellen Parr finds a girl sleeping, unclaimed at the back of an empty bus. Five-year-old Pamela, it seems, is entirely alone.
Ellen has always believed she does not want children, but when she takes Pamela into her home the child cracks open the past Ellen thought she had escaped and the future she had dreamed for herself. As the war rages on, love grows where it was least expected, surprising them all. But with the end of the fighting comes the realization that Pamela was never theirs to keep…
For anyone who loved All the Light We Cannot See and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, We Must Be Brave is a luminous novel about the ways we can rescue one another, and the many different forms that courage can take.
This novel was just divine. Such a beautifully moving study on love, compassion, and courage. It examines the different ways in which people can make an impact on the lives of others and explores the many different types of love that can exist. This novel covers a large period of time, it’s quiet and literary, character driven for most of the way; I just adored every single page.
“Do you know why I’m not frightened of the cold? Because I know about it. How you can let it sink right into your bones, and it won’t damage you at all. I know how to suck on a pebble to keep hunger pangs away. You have to do that, you know, if you’ve just given a child your own food. The pain’s excruciating otherwise. And I can carry her, further than anyone. I can walk twenty miles with nothing inside me but the skin of a baked potato. You say I’ve got no idea about war, and shelling. Well, you’ve got no idea what I can endure for her sake.”
We Must Be Brave is as much of a community story as it is Ellen’s. When the story opens, the village of Upton is in the midst of helping evacuees from Southampton, whose homes have been bombed in German air raids. Ellen, newly married to an older man whom she adores and who in turn adores her, is comfortably upper class, childless by choice, and running the local mill with her husband. In the midst of assisting the evacuees, she comes upon a small child, only about four years of age, sleeping alone on a bus, seemingly belonging to no one. She takes her home for the night, along with several other evacuees, who they are providing emergency shelter for. Ellen and her husband are already fostering three young boys from London as part of the children evacuation scheme. Over the next few days, it becomes apparent that the little girl, Pamela, is effectively an orphan, and she remains with Ellen and her husband, as their unofficial foster daughter. This is of course at the height of the war, so it didn’t seem at all unusual that she remained there. Ellen was already fostering the three boys, so one more child left with them made perfect sense. As Ellen becomes attached to Pamela in ways she could not have foreseen, memories of her complicated relationship with her own mother throughout her childhood rise to the fore and we become privy to Ellen’s riches to rags upbringing, which really made my heart ache.
“I clamped my knees and teeth together, trying to keep it away from me. But it was in vain. I was in it up to my neck. She’d been clean and young and beautiful and now look at her. Look at us, living in dirt and dreck with Edward gone and a carpet on our bed. Daddy wasn’t mad. He was just a wastrel and coward who had taken a coward’s way out after robbing us. Left us in our coal dust and our filthy worn linen and our dry potatoes.”
There were several people throughout Ellen’s childhood who helped her along the way, as poverty stricken as she was. Some of the time, Ellen was aware of this, but more often than not, help was offered discretely, with Ellen not even finding out until many years later. I really enjoyed these moments of discovery along the way for Ellen, whose gratitude was always very much in evidence. Ellen herself was a beautiful person, remarkably matter of fact about so many things, but she also had hidden depths, hurts she had buried down deep, a lot of things unresolved. Her marriage was unconventional, but it was filled with love and I appreciated the way the author explored this.
“I might turn into a thousand things – who could tell? But I couldn’t live my life according to what I might be, or might want. I was myself, now. And he was here, now. A man who wouldn’t just hold me and kiss me, but a man I could say anything to and be understood, a man who could open the world to me with his heart and mind. How many women had that? Didn’t he realise what we could be, together?”
There were many loves in Ellen’s life. Her mother, her brother, her husband; and then there was Lucy, the only person who spoke to Ellen after her plummet into poverty, where she was forced to attend the village school as a pauper and live in one of the partially condemned welfare houses. Lucy becomes more than Ellen’s best friend, she is her other half. I loved the friendship between these two women, the highs and the lows, the foot in mouth moments that led to fights and the times they were perfectly in sync. This was friendship done right.
“This was what happened when you knew a woman for over forty years. You knew her thoughts, the way they ran, almost as well as you knew your own.”
And then there was Ellen’s greatest love: Pamela, who is only with her for a little over three years, but her impact upon Ellen is lasting. This relationship was so beautiful, naturally evolving from two people being thrown together in turbulent times, and discovering that they were meant to be, except that they weren’t. It was only ever temporary. I’ve never really given much thought, to how hard it must have been to host children during the war, particularly little ones who are in those formative years, bonding and then having to just give them back. The break between Ellen and Pamela was devastating, and it left its mark permanently on both of them. It takes a lot of courage to love someone you know you’re going to lose. I haven’t admired a character as much as Ellen for a very long time. She was beautifully crafted by the author.
“She hadn’t smiled all morning, and I realised I’d seen the last of her smiles the previous day, and I wouldn’t see another.”
We Must Be Brave is a deeply meaningful novel that sweeps through time with a gentle grace. It’s perfect for lovers of literary historical fiction, who like their novels to dig deep into its characters, while still providing a thought provoking story. Another top read for the year.
Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of We Must Be Brave for review.
About the Author:
Frances Liardet is a child of the children of the Second World War. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and studied Arabic at Oxford before travelling to Cairo to work as a translator. She currently lives in Somerset, England, with her husband and daughter, and runs a summer writing session called Bootcamp. We Must Be Brave is her second novel.
We Must Be Brave
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia (4th Estate – GB)
Released on 29th January 2019