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Familiar territory, but a gripping and suspenseful yarn
on May 1, 2012
Plenty of novelists have tackled the irresistibly suspenseful material that World War II espionage offers, and many of them have honed in on the activities of the women of the French section of the SOE, the ultra-secret group assigned by Churchill to "set Europe ablaze". Off the top of my head, I can bring to mind novels by Evelyn Anthony, Ted Allebury, Elizabeth Buchan, Larry Collins -- and those are just books I read back in the 1980s. And yet, despite the fact that real-life chronicles and novels have been based on these tales since the end of the war in 1945, Simon Mawer shows that there's room for more.
What he brings to to the familiar territory of the SOE's operations in France is a great narrative style and tremendous ability in bringing to life characters whose objectives and convictions aren't always clear even to themselves, and who experience fear and terror rather than posturing bravely in the manner of a golden era movie hero or heroine. Marian Sutro, recruited because of her ability to speak French like a native and dispatched to work with an SOE circuit in the southwest of France, is often terrified and battles nightmares about falling through the air -- just as she did in real life when she arrived via parachute. When she is dispatched to Paris on a special assignment for a rival espionage organization, fear turns to terror, all the more acute because the physical landscape of Paris so familiar to her and yet simultaneously nightmarishly different. Mawer's descriptions were so vivid that I found my own breathing becoming more rapid and my palms damp as Marian negotiates her way through the Parisian streets, at first haunted by a sense of unease and later trying to dodge pursuit.
Mawer takes the reader into Marian's head as she undergoes training for her espionage assignment and learns to lie and mistrust the motives of others. Whom can she trust -- and who is she, really, amidst all the identities her handlers have provided her with: Marian, Anne Marie, Alice or even Laurette? The first two-thirds of the book is less oriented toward to action than such introspective pondering, but that didn't detract from its interest. Some parts -- the extensive and sometimes repetitive resurrection of her teenage years spent caught between her brilliant physics scholar brother and his equally talented French friend, not understanding the nature of their discussions but captivated by their intensity -- didn't work as well as they could have, but I can understand why Mawer included them -- part of Marian's mission involves meeting Clement, the young man she idolized only a few years earlier in a more peaceful world.
The final chunk of this novel is a rollercoaster ride that takes Marian on a desperate race through the streets of Paris and back to the country, forcing her to make some life altering decisions. Some of these didn't make sense in light of what Mawer tells the reader -- but since the most problematic of those decisions by Marian sets the book up for a shattering climax on the final page, I may have to forgive him for that -- if not for the fact that he left me hanging in suspense!
Definitely recommended for anyone who has read and enjoyed Alan Furst's 1930s/1940s noirish espionage tales set in Europe; like Furst, Mawer allows the narrative tension to build almost imperceptibly until the reader is well into the story, and like Furst, he enjoys exploring the impact of extraordinary events such as those against which he sets this novel on his characters. 4.5 stars; rounded down rather than up because it isn't quite a 5-star book. But it is a "thumping good read"...
I first read a copy courtesy of NetGalleys; I'll be acquiring a copy for my Kindle soon so that I'll have it on hand to re-read.