This book makes me thoroughly proud to come from Hull. As the City of Culture for 2017, Hull has been getting a lot of criticism recently from its own people, who often come out with remarks such as “Yeah, right, City of Culture. There’s not even that many places to go for a night out, and there’s only so many times you can visit the Deep.”
It makes me really sad because it would take barely any time or effort at all, especially given the excitement being created by this diamond of a book, to discover just how much culture this city really has. It is brimming with life, with art, music, literature, history, sport, theatre, festivals and fairs. It has a wealth of exciting history, which talented individuals from all areas of the city use in their artwork. And this book is no exception.
The reason this book is such a triumph in my eyes is because it embodies that tradition which makes Hull such an amazing place: it connects the present to the past and in doing so, creates a richly cultural and compelling experience. In the same way that our museums and Freedom Festivals breathe life back into Hull’s past by celebrating it in the present, How To Be Brave entwines a stunning emotional historical tale with a present-day narrative and leaves the reader thoroughly engrossed in both.
When nine-year-old Rose is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, Natalie must use her imagination to keep her daughter alive. They begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar, a man who has something for them. Through the magic of storytelling, Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat, where an ancestor survived for fifty days before being rescued. Poignant, beautifully written and tenderly told, How To Be Brave weaves together the contemporary story of a mother battling to save her child’s life with an extraordinary true account of bravery and a fight for survival in the Second World War. A simply unforgettable debut that celebrates the power of words, the redemptive energy of a mother’s love … and what it really means to be brave.
How To Be Brave explores the story of Natalie and her daughter Rose, whose lives are turned upside down by the discovery that Rose has Type 1 diabetes and must learn to administer insulin injections for the rest of her life. Parallel to this story is that of Colin Armitage, Natalie’s grandfather who became stranded on a lifeboat out at sea with a number of his shipmates, long before he was married or had children. However, the two stories do not run separately from each other: Colin visits Natalie and Rose as a ghost-like figure at their greatest hours of need, and Natalie uses her grandfather’s story as a bargaining chip. Every time Rose allows Natalie to administer her insulin injection, Natalie will tell another instalment of Colin’s story, using his diary as a guide. Colin’s story of survival helps Natalie and Rose survive their own ordeal.
In writing all of her characters at times of both happiness and sadness, in desperation and in joy, at times of conflict and love, Louise gives a roundness and 3-dimensional quality to them all. The great thing is that none of them are perfect, which makes them all the more real. Rose’s struggle is heartbreaking, and she is such an inspirational girl, but at times her misbehaviour can be very trying and so it’s easy to understand why Natalie gets so frustrated and upset. On the flip side, considering that this is a problem that will affect her entire life, I could understand why she behaved the way she did. The fact that the characters roused such internal conflict within myself proves how powerfully created each character is.
In Colin’s relationships with his shipmates, Louise Beech manages to capture that true Hullian sense of camaraderie that is truly something special. The men are MEN: tough, masculine, no-nonsense hard workers, but they are not afraid of showing their loyalties to one another. Being at sea forms true, lasting friendships. In shared experience and mutual will to survive, their relationships with each other only grow stronger and more intense, despite frustrations often leading to conflict. They find ways of comforting one another through a distressing situation.
“The moonlight equalised them; they shuffled for the best spot in a craft designed for half their number and they sang softly until sleep washed whispers away, a mixture of accents and tones and depth.”
This is mirrored in Natalie’s relationship with Rose: in times of crisis Natalie grows angry and Rose lashes out at her mother, but having to go through the trauma of dealing with Rose’s diabetes ultimately makes their bond much stronger. The book tackles the subject of grief and hardship in such a wonderfully unique way. Each word feels magical and makes the story more captivating.
Even in describing something ugly, Louise manages to use such beautiful, captivating language. For example:
“One wound cut his face almost in two, like a forward slash dividing lines of poetry.”
This kind of writing appears throughout the book and adds to that bittersweet undercurrent that runs throughout. It is such a gorgeously-written book. It is really quite difficult to put into words what this book did to me. Louise couldn’t have written a more perfect debut novel, and her talented team at Orenda Books have a real masterpiece here. 100% my favourite book of the year.