Every so often a book will come along and will seep its way into your heart right from the very beginning. You’ll instantly connect with the main protagonists and it will leave you feeling completely overwhelmed by how much it has affected you. For me, this was the effect that How To Be Brave by Louise Beech had on me.
How To Be Brave is a true fact-meets-fiction novel in that it is loosely based on Beech’s own experiences as a mother of a diabetic daughter and the true story of how fourteen men (including her grandfather) were lost at sea. Beech’s main protagonist, Natalie, is forced to come to terms with the shocking diagnosis that her nine-year-old daughter Rose has Type 1 diabetes after she collapses in the kitchen. As she has to learn how to manage her daughter’s condition in terms of learning the routine of testing her blood by pricking Rose’s fingertips and injecting her with the correct dose of insulin numerous times a day, whilst at the same time dealing with Rose’s own difficulties in coming to terms with her illness, Natalie struggles to keep it together. Her husband, Jake, is in Afghanistan and she is not good at accepting help, so she pushes on, trying to find a way to reconnect with Rose and to try and help her come to terms with her life-changing condition. As these traumatic events unfold, Natalie and Rose are individually ‘visited’ by Natalie’s long-dead grandfather as he becomes the lynch-pin that binds Natalie and Rose together. Natalie tells Rose the story of her great-grandfather, quite literally an exchange of blood for words, and they share this mind-blowing story of how Grandad Colin survived being lost at sea for such a long time and what became of those who were lost at sea with him.
Beech has quite clearly demonstrated her own bravery in bringing these two emotionally heart-wrenching stories together to write a beautifully poignant, yet uplifting novel. The two stories are so flawlessly intertwined and despite the element of the fantastical, Beech has seamlessly juxtaposed the two stories to write a wonderfully truthful account of a mother’s struggle to cope. The reader shares Natalie and Rose journey, as well as the harrowing reality of being lost at sea. Whilst, on first consideration, it may be difficult to see how these two stories could knit together, Beech does a wonderful job of making it so naturally combined. The threads of authenticity enhances the narrative for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
Ultimately, this is a story of survival, of the desire to survive and what it takes to be brave in the most adverse of situations. Each character is fighting their own battle that, in turn, inspires others to fight for their own lives. The fourteen men on the boat all handle their dire situation in different ways, depending on their strength of character and their reasons for wanting to survive. All the characters are pushed to their limits on numerous occasions, yet they find strength from within, and from those around them, to push on. Beech draws such engaging characters that each pitfall is devastating to the reader and each victory is thrilling.
The sense of realism that Beech brings to this novel completely engulfed me; I felt for Natalie and Rose so much as a mother of three girls myself, all of them as smart-mouthed and sassy as Rose. I sympathised with Natalie as she is rejected by Rose and I despaired for Rose as she has to grow up fast to adapt to her new lifestyle. I laughed at Rose’s cheek and I cried at her level of wisdom for one so young. Beech weaves such a rich tapestry of characters throughout the novel that the reader cannot help but will each one to survive and wish the best for each of them. Knowing that the basis of the novel is in real-life situations adds extra depth to this wonderful narrative. As Rose is desperate for the men on the boat to survive, so too is the reader. Beech describes their plight with such intricate detail that you can almost place yourself on the tiny boat and imagine the treacherous conditions that they suffered through.
If I had the time, I would undoubtedly have read this book in one sitting and it is definitely a book I could read again and again. I loved it from the very first page to the last. I felt that dreadful sadness when a book that you have been so engrossed in ends. It is a stunningly written novel that completely deserves the acclaim it has been afforded so far. It is moving, funny, gripping and uplifting. How To Be Brave has completely won me over and I have every intention of telling everyone I know to read it.