There are many ways of being adrift. Young mum Natalie is adrift, caring for her sick daughter alone. Her grandfather Colin was once literally adrift, trapped on a lifeboat in the South Atlantic after his ship was torpedoed during the Second World War.
At the beginning of the novel, Natalie and her nine-year-old daughter Rose have a close, happy bond. They make the best of life while Natalie’s husband Jake is away serving in Afghanistan. One night, their world falls apart as Rose falls ill with a mysterious disease. Slowly we discover that she has type one diabetes, whose cure is painful and distressing for Rose, so much so that she changes from a happy-go-lucky child to one who has become angry and resentful towards her mother.
Just-barely-coping Natalie has few friends, and her divorced parents live far away. The professionals she encounters are well-meaning but often judgmental and often make her feel worse about the way she is dealing with the crisis.
Meanwhile, Rose stubbornly refuses to play the healthcare game, which in Britain is mostly played out in homespun advice and flyers. Rose is unimpressed:
‘Would you like some nice pamphlets on h…’
‘No thank you,’ said Rose. ‘If I decide to do it, I’ll just do it. Don’t need a stupid pamphlet thing.’
‘Okay.’ Another silence. ‘Your mum tells me there’s a story she’s been reading to help with injections. Do you want to tell me about that?’
‘It’s totally amazing,’ said Rose.
The story is totally amazing: a harrowing account of how Rose’s great-grandfather Colin survived weeks lost at sea with over a dozen other men. What has made How to Be Brave a word-of-mouth hit is that both stories, Natalie and Rose’s dilemma as well as Colin’s struggle for survival, are equally gripping.
Colin’s situation is appalling but it also one that shows the best of humanity. The few men and boys on the boat (some of them are still in their teens) face their predicament with stoicism. It is a situation where a single button takes on enormous importance, where people are so desperate for water that they lick the moisture off the boat’s timbers after rain, where some lose their minds.
It’s sad and uplifting, calm and shocking, perhaps because both narratives are based on true stories. There are many books around about sailors lost at sea, but it’s the quiet dignity of these 1940s sailors that is most striking in contrast to the grotesque violence that occupies most novels in the genre.
How To Be Brave is possibly the most moving book that I have read in the five years that I have been writing this blog. It’s a novel that can give great comfort to those who are going through hard times.