This novel, a sequel to The Girl who Fell from the Sky is a terrific read. It follows the story of Marian Sutro, parachuted into France to help the resistance during the war, from her return to the UK in spring 1945, though the end of the war and into the bleak post war period. For me the novel seems to fall into two halves: the first, Marian’s experiences of post war Britain as she struggles to overcome her own trauma and find her place in society, the second a fast paced thriller as she is drawn yet again into intelligence networks. And both sections are anchored in historical detail, both great events and the texture and fabric of post war everyday life, which give the narrative authenticity and depth.
The novel starts in 1945 when Marian arrives back in the UK. She has been held in captivity by the Gestapo and then held at Ravensbrück concentration camp, which makes her an object of admiration but also horror for her family and friends because of her skeletal appearance and shattered nerves. Their fascination mixed with repulsion is expressed in dialogue ridden with the banalities and platitudes of the British middle classes, at a loss for words for once, which contributes to the evocation of post war Britain- with its flat and bland austerity. Marian’s fragile mental and physical state is described in detail and while she rebuilds her physical strength, her mental state -flat moods, unwillingness to socialise, insomnia, preoccupation with death- is shown to be harder to overcome. Through her flashbacks we learn about what she endured at Ravensbrück and of the fate of several of her comrades.
Gradually Marian becomes better and, to the surprise of some, marries Alan, a dull good sort, and finds a job at the Franco- British Peace Union. The theme of peace is back on the agenda after August 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, marking the beginning of an entirely new era of warfare and destruction. Marian is passionately committed to avoiding all out nuclear war and organises a talk with Bertrand Russell, while at the same time learning from her nuclear scientist brother Ned that several eminent scientists see giving nuclear secrets to the Russians as the only way to maintain the balance of power and to avoid nuclear war. When Marian meets the Russian Absolon and lets desire get the better of her, the stage is set for a complex web of secrecy and betrayal : Marian is indeed walking the eponymous tightrope, where falling off to either side will spell disaster.
Now, it’s not strictly true to say that the novel starts in 1945 – there is a framing narrative which starts the story off, and that’s an account of Sam Wareham, an old family friend of the Sutros, visiting the elderly Marian, now living in Lausanne, to ask for details of her last assignment in order to ‘close the file’. The novel is then essentially the story as told by Marian through the narrative voice of Sam. However, as Sam was a 12 year old boy at the time of Marian’s return and met with her over the years, we also have the adult narrator reflecting Marian as seen by his 12 year old self. The erotic potential is used to the full here, as the young Sam lusts after the beautiful Marian and the prose lingers languorously over her lovely limbs ( but I am not going to tut about the male gaze in this book as Marian herself is an active initiator of sex on several occasions). But eroticism aside, this technique does give us a more distanced, framed, view of Marian which complements well the free indirect style of most of the narrative. What it also does so effectively is to place the post war period followed by the Cold War firmly into the past: Marian is elderly and fragile, Sam himself middle aged, this is the last chance to fill in the gaps in her story.
I can’t comment any further on gaps being filled without spoiling but for me the final section of Marian’s story saw her character and life foregrounded again- rather than a novel of two parts I saw a woman irrevocably marked by her wartime experiences. Unable to settle down into a humdrum life of marriage and family, she is drawn to excitement and risk taking in all its forms. So the damaged character of the first half of the book becomes of necessity the restless woman and ruthlessly intelligent spy of the second half. This is a compelling, moving and woman centred exploration in fiction of what happened to those courageous SOE agents who survived and returned. Thank you Simon Mawer.