How to be Brave by Louise Beech (Orenda Books, 2015) Paperback, 350pp.
The late, great American author, J.D. Salinger said: ‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.’
Well I wasn’t quite able to follow Salinger’s wish, but did do the next best 21st century social media equivalent by contacting the debut author Louise Beech with my compliments on her fine book, via Twitter.
The communication mode is different, but Salinger’s thesis is spot on.
It is not often a book merits a wish to tell the writer how good it is. Well, How to be Brave (Orenda Books, 2015) is one such book. It is simply one of the finest first novels I have read.
Beech’s poetic prose makes even the mundane compelling and the interesting captivating. She tells this fascinating story well.
The book tells of a military wife in very recent times who has to deal with the devastating news that her precocious bright, cheeky ten-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Natalie, the mother, has to figure a routine, to ensure Rose, the little girl, is diverted during the series of blood tests and painful injections that come with the life-threatening disease. Natalie decides that her daughter will learn from the story of Natalie’s grandfather Colin, a brave Hull merchant sailor who survived 50 days at sea after his merchant ship was torpedoed in World War II. A previous undiscovered diary is the source of the story that teaches the child, and her mother, how to be brave.
Natalie is alone with the child, her husband is serving in Afghanistan. She and her daughter help each other through. The grandfather’s story is told to the child in instalments, in return for her courage in facing treatment. This premise allows for the novel to move effortlessly back and forth from the present day struggle with Rose’s disease to the battle for survival of the shipwrecked grandfather and his 13 comrades in the open, terrifying seas.
This is a difficult book to categorise, and that is part of its beauty. It is also an easy book to read and that is part of its joy.
The reader lives the ordeals of the child, the mother while witnessing the horrors of the relentless 50 days’ battle in the sea. There are mystic elements of the metaphysical is this book too, especially Beech’s writing of how Colin, the grandfather long gone, reaches out from beyond. This is a book that could easy have fallen into slush sentimentality or even elements of the ridiculous. It avoids these traps beautifully with simple, effective and beautifully descriptive prose.
How to be Brave, is a fiction that reads like the best of creative nonfiction, and is obviously well researched. It is a book you live, rather than read.
I was saddened by its end but uplifted by its art.
If you are a mother it will make you realise the endless reserve that is your love for your child. If you are a child, which of course we all are, it will make you appreciate further how lucky you are/were to have such unconditional love.
There is a part of the story when the mother Natalie fears how her daughter Rose will react when the story of the grandfather’s ordeal ends,
So she asks the child, ‘Will you be OK when it does end?’ to which the child replies, ‘Yes ‘cos I’ll forever have this story in my head.’
And thankfully so will I.
But I will keep it on my Kindle too…just in case.