May 08, 12
Read in May, 2012
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That's one of the things that war does. And we wonder too, if we were placed under such pressures as having our country occupied by an enemy, would we too do find ourselves doing extraordinary things? Almost immediately after France was occupied by Germany in 1940, General De Gaulle, from his base in London, as head of the Free French movement, called on his compatriots in France to resist the German occupation at all costs so as to keep France free and restore the glory of France. Just a month later, the British Government formed the Special Operations Executive, a largely secretive organisation that was to undertake a variety of tasks including espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in Europe against Germany and its allies, and to use and aid the local resistance movements to achieve these aims. The SOE depended for its success on recruiting agents who could pass as natives of the countries they were placed into. Dual citizenship, years of living in the subject country, fluency in the language, an affinity with the country were all qualities highly sought after.
France was not the only country that the SOE operated in, but it is the subject of this novel, the latest by Simon Mawer, whose previous novel, 'The Glass Room' was short listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Young Marian Sutro, with her English diplomat father, and her French mother has lived much of her life in Switzerland and also knows Paris very well. Marian works for the WAAF where her intelligence and steady nerves have her working in the Filter Room, a section of the Defence system where aircraft positions are plotted and recorded. She comes to the attention of a SOE recruiter. After having the dangers outlined to her, which are many, she agrees to join the SOE, and so her big adventure begins. She is sent to Scotland to a training facility where she undergoes a most extensive and intensive training course in all aspects of self-preservation, espionage, surveillance, wireless work and essentially survival.
And finally comes her big moment of being parachuted into France to begin her big adventure. To this point the story has trundled along at quite a leisurely unexciting sort of pace - really setting the scene for the second half. We are introduced to her fellow 'students' at the training camp, especially Benoit and Yvette. We are also introduced to her brother Ned who is a physicist and read about a Frenchman, Clement, a slightly older family friend who she had a mad crush on during her teenage years and who is now a nuclear physicist still in occupied Paris.
Once Marian, now Alice, and soon to take on a third identity, lands in France, we are immediately plunged into the adrenalin laced, terrifying, stressful, and exhausting life of the partisan/resistance worker. From the countryside of the still unoccupied south west France to German-infested Paris, Marian attempts to do the tasks she has been assigned. Which I won't divulge here! The contrast in the writing style is quite pronounced and the book very quickly becomes a page turner. While very much a tale of good vs evil, it is primarily the story of Marian's growth: from a young, naive, perhaps bit spoilt, bored girl into a highly trained, sophisticated, professional, self aware woman. And never once do you let your guard down.
The stories of women resistance workers have been told many times and in many different forms over the decades. But whether they are true as in the life of Nancy Wake or fictional as in Sebastian Faulkes' 'Charlotte Grey' or William Boyd's 'Restless' they still have the ability to make us wonder how we would behave, leave us in awe and above all humble us. A most worthwhile read.