This novel is dedicated to Colette, one of the brave women parachuted into occupied France for the Special Operations Executive during WW11 . As I’m interested in books with strong female protagonists-see my post on William Boyd’s Sweet Caress– and the novel was recommended by friends with whom I used to teach French, I decided to give it a go.
The central character is one Marian Sutro, brought up in Geneva with a French mother and English father and therefore bilingual. She is plucked from the ranks of the WAAF to train for the SOE without quite knowing what she is letting herself in for. She is told the training will be rigorous, she will not necessarily succeed and be sent to work in the field and she must tell no one what work she is actually engaged in. She turns out to be quite tough enough, an excellent shot and is eventually parachuted on a mission into the south of France. Just before leaving she has also been asked to help with getting someone out of Paris and so her work in France involves both negotiating the complex networks of the resistance in rural France, but also the far more dangerous streets of Paris, with the Gestapo at every corner and fear a palpable presence in the air.
A second theme threading through the narrative is that of nuclear physics, specifically the international race to develop the first nuclear bomb. Marian discovers that her brother, Ned, is involved in this work as is their old family friend, Clément, and this second theme is also important in the development of the plot.
Now that’s all I’m going to say about the plot-this is a sort of literary thriller and I don’t want to spoil. But also for me the plot was only one of the elements which made this a very readable and compelling novel. I admired the careful knitting together of historical context and background events which enhanced characterisation and motivation as well as advancing the narrative: Clément’s Jewish wife leaves Paris because of the round up at the Vél d’Hiv, the resistance fighters are jumpy and agitated, distrustful of the British and each other because of ideological differences, Marian is horrified at the potential of an atomic bomb, being aware of the loss of human life after the carpet bombing of Hamburg. Simon Mawer shows real knowledge of France under occupation and pulls different strands together with consummate skill.
I also enjoyed his depiction of place- the wild Scottish highlands, rural France, the streets and squares of central Paris and the working class suburb of Belleville are again described with such accuracy and attention to detail that you feel you are right there, experiencing fear in a dark field just before a night time drop or a moment of relaxation in the autumn sunlight by the Garonne in Toulouse. And this evocation of place is deepened by Mawer’s simple but effective imagery: at the Palais de Justice in Paris, ‘the swastika banners hang down the front of the building, the colour of sealing wax and boot polish’.
Now, I felt that the characterisation of Marian was a little more uneven. I felt her development from capable but naive young woman to competent operator was well and plausibly handled as was the transition in her sexual and romantic experience.However I couldn’t quite believe that she would blurt out to her brother what she was really training for, however close they were, and one or two conversations with her superiors had her as a bit more sassy than I could believe in 1940s Britain with its stricter codes of authority and hierarchy. Still, there were gentle brushstrokes I adored- Marian putting on the shoes she’d bought with Mama and Papa in a little shop off the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1940 shortly before they left Paris for London. A little vanity setting off that memory of closeness and nostalgia for a Paris now disappeared.
So I’m giving Simon Mawer 8 out of 10 for a male writer’s depiction of a strong female character but for his account of occupied France- chapeau!! And the sequel to this one, Tightrope, is now available too.