I’ve had to read this book rather sooner than I would have wanted because it is my choice for a new book group I’ve joined and they like to have questions to go along with the reading. Personally, I prefer to leave a book until the week before I need to discuss it, timing my reading so that I finish it either on the day before the meeting or, even better, on the day of the meeting itself. No such luxury this time round, three weeks before we get together I have the book polished off but will probably have to go back and do a very quick re-read just before the meeting in order to be able to talk about it in the sort of detail I like.
Of course, I could have got round the situation by choosing a book I already knew well enough to be able to suggest areas for discussion and then done a thorough re-read of it in two weeks time, but I’ve been looking for a reason to read Simon Mawer’s novel ever since it came out and its subject matter and style seem to me to be just right for this particular group, so the ‘happy coincidence’ was too much to resist.
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (published in the US under the title Trapeze) is the story of Marian Sutro a half French, half British young woman who is recruited by the Special Operation Executive (SOE) to go undercover in France during the Second World War, in order to work with the Resistance. The reason I wanted to read it so much was that some years ago I read and very much enjoyed Leo Marks’ book Between Silk and Cyanide in which he describes his time working for SOE as the genius behind the codes on which the lives of the young men and women involved in this dangerous work could well depend. Leo Marks was the son of the man who owned Marks and Co, better known as 84 Charing Cross Road, which is why I picked up his book, and a complete eccentric, but he understood codes and he understood the problems which the red tape surrounding them at this end could pose for the agent in the field. From his book I got a picture of what was happening back here in London. What I wanted from Mawer’s novel was an understanding of something of what it was like out at the other end of the story.
The novel opens as Marian is preparing to parachute into France but then immediately jumps back in time to take us through the rigorous training regime to which the recruits are subjected. At first I was surprised at how spare Mawer’s style is but gradually I came to appreciate this because as the book progresses and we become involved in the constant terror that the agents have to live with anything less prosaic would be too much to take. The simplicity of his tone allows the very real danger of each moment nowhere to hide.
Once we have caught up with ourselves and Marion is actually in France the reality of the ‘games’ they have been playing back in England become all too apparent. Agents are given a new identity to take with them and Marian becomes Alice and Anne-Marie and eventually, when her cover appears to have been blown, Laurence. But, who is everybody else? What do the identities that they are assuming at any one point in time hide? Can you assume that anyone is who they say they are or that they can be trusted? Having known them and trusted them in one persona is no guarantee that you can do the same now. Even those people who have been dearest to us can change and a war-time agent can afford to assume nothing.
And assuming nothing means that Marian has to question even her beloved Clément, friend of her elder brother, Ned and her teenage idol. Clément, like Ned, is a quantum physicist, and the British establishment are desperate to get him to come over to London to continue his work on what would become the atomic bomb. There is an ironic contrast here between the ‘safe’ distance that the likes of Ned and Clément can maintain from the act of killing and the immediacy of death that Marian and her fellow agents have to face every day. And who is the more important to the powers that be? I wouldn’t say that Mawer gives the impression that the agents are not valued by those who send them out but there is definitely a feeling that if it were to come to a choice between Clément’s safety and hers it is the scientist who would win out every time.
Ultimately, however, Marian’s safety is threatened by a number of factors. Mawer raises the issue of the poem-codes which, in their earliest manifestation, made sending messages such a dangerous enterprise and which drove Leo Marks almost to distraction. There is also the frailty of those around her who, understandably, have priorities other than her survival. But, perhaps most importantly there is Marian’s inability to see beyond her own role. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she has a death wish, but her insistence on carrying on with the task she has been given even after her cover has been blown and she has inevitably become a risk to those with whom she is involved smacks of obsession. Perhaps that had to be part of your make-up even to think of doing a job like this.
Overall, I was impressed with this book. Mawer makes clear the dangers and difficulties faced by the agents without ever becoming over emotional and never romanticising. When it comes to having to re-read it quickly in a couple of weeks time that will be no penance at all.