Chris Cleave begins this war novel with page after page of relentless lighthearted repartee. At the outbreak of war, Tom considers himself possibly "the only man in London who did not think the war was an unmissable parade lap." Raised to the post of running a school district, he reflects that he "might celebrate the promotion if he didn't have the gift for noticing that the schools were empty."
Tom's friend and flatmate, Alistair, restored paintings for the Tate before the museum's treasures were trucked to Wales and hidden in a mine shaft for the duration. On hearing his friend has signed up, Tom gives him a jar of blackberry jam freshly made with wild fruit and the last of their sugar ration. When his friend vows to "lay it down" to "open together at war's end," the reader fears that jar of jam will not be shared by the pals in peacetime.
The author then introduces Mary and Hilda. Unlike their male counterparts, the women friends are from wealthy families. They talk and laugh and argue and fight, and have known each other for a lifetime. The war tests this friendship and throws their different attitudes into sharp relief. While Hilda proclaims herself content to find a handsome man in a uniform, Mary volunteers for war service and stumbles upon her gift and calling for teaching children.
When her class is evacuated, she prevails on Tom to give her a job teaching the children who've been left behind, or sent back unwanted from the countryside. Some are physically disabled, and one child, eleven-year-old Zachary, is a black American with whom Mary forms an instant bond.
Mary and Tom fall in love, and she prepares her classroom, complete with a basement air raid shelter. In the midst of the Christmas pageant, the sirens sound and the children and teacher go down, along with spectators Tom and Alistair. Due to Mary's pre-planning, they're able to continue the pageant below stairs. Knowing that Alistair has now been accepted by the army, Tom broods beside his friend, worried that perhaps "it is not possible, after all, for a man who had gone to war to abide a man who had stayed."
Cleave alters his language as the situation darkens. The light witticisms that initially mark the conversations between Tom and Alistair and Tom and Mary give way to images of ruthless realism. The reader is party to Alistair's grim thoughts about "the crushing fatigue and the fear, and the constant mental strain of saying to others, We shall prevail, and to oneself, I am defeated." Under the air raid, Tom speaks seriously to Mary, admitting that now he really hates the Germans, though "he never thought he had it in him." Her witty reply is filled with brittle bitterness, "'That's why we call them the enemy. See how it works now, darling?'"
Tom reveals that he too volunteered, and was refused, adding that he thought she might be proud of him in uniform. "'Do you really think so little of me?'" she responds. When in a funk, he tries to break it off with her, Mary summarizes her life and fate and choices in these simple words. '''But it wouldn't be my life, don't you see? You're the one I've chosen, and I love you even more for being good enough to ask me not to choose you.'"
Meanwhile, on the starving rocky island of Malta, a gloomy Alistair remembers London, where he used to view history "as a reworkable legend, a great entertainment of doubtful veracity and liable...to revision whenever the next mudlark waded into the Thames at low tide and pulled out some iconoclastic sherd." His gloom deepens his irony: he bitterly supposes "the War Office had established a vast cache of polishes" to make boots glow "as if with an inner light" and the band instruments blaze "like the armor of Achilles." Since the arrival of letters might leave his men "upbeat or homesick, or a queer mix of the two" he drops by to "project a soothing equanimity." Then he goes to partake of a Christmas dinner made of "bread crumbs and canned malevolence."
In London, Mary watches "the devastation roll by," each bomb "a breach in the carapace, laying bare the living nerve." When she writes to Alistair about her guilt and regret over the air raid that struck her classroom, she tells him she was "brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season." For his part, Alistair feels ill equipped to reply to her letter, believing that in all of history "there was not one example of a man ever having written a satisfactory letter to a woman who mattered to him."
When they do meet, he suggests she drive an ambulance, asking, with a flash of his old gaiety, "'Why wander through your thoughts when you could drive through them quite recklessly, with sirens?'" After he returns to duty, they exchange humorous letters. One day, he looks up after reading one of hers, "surprised to find the war." The mood is lifting, and with it, Cleave's fresh and incisive language.
We see more of this upshift in the language as the novel moves toward a hesitant hope. In the Ritz with friends, Mary reflects that "Here they honored one's name in that generous way the Ritz knew, which was to remember it only when one was sober."
Yet even with the promise of light, there are bad moments. Mary feels herself stepping "into the dark, even though she knew that each step took her no further from who she was," and foresees that when the zoo animals are "returned to their old labeled cages," the world will remain unable to "wake from its pattern."
At the end of this unputdownable story, the reader is left with the hope of "an air one might still breathe, if everyone forgiven was brave." Author Chris Cleave's grandfather served in the war, and from the intimacy of this portrayal of how war affects various individuals, one is tempted to believe that he too might have witnessed it at first hand. Perhaps in another life.