So, let’s start off with another holiday read which turned out to be a fabulous book, and another one that made me cry (doesn’t seem to be too difficult these days, perhaps its my age). Code Name Verity tells the story of Verity (as in her alias, I can’t remember exactly when in the book we find out her real name) who is an SOE operative behind enemy lines in occupied France during WWII.
The story is told in two parts, two different views of the same events which I thought worked really, really well here. We start with Verity who has been captured and is being tortured by the Gestapo; in her cell she thinks back over how she met Maddie, an unlikely friendship as Verity (we find out) is from a wealthy Scottish aristocratic family and Maddie is a working class girl from Manchester obsessed with machines, especially planes. We learn how their friendship develops, how they become involved in the war effort and how Verity ended up where she is. We then switch to the other viewpoint, about which I won’t give too much away, which fills in some of the gaps in Verity’s story and brings the whole thing to a conclusion, which is where my middle-aged weeping comes in.
This is another young adult novel, so again clear, direct, simple language but not flinching away from the necessarily unpleasant aspects of the story. One of the strongest themes is that of female friendship; Verity and Maddie really mean a lot to each other and their relationship was entirely convincing. And it makes clear the sacrifices a number of women made, leaving their families to carry out dangerous work with no guarantee of return. This is an excellent novel and it will hopefully win a number of the awards for which it has been nominated. I thought it was stunning.
One of the things I enjoy a great deal is reading the author’s notes for this type of novel, not so much the acknowledgements to friends and colleagues who have in some way assisted (though they can also be quite fun), but more the research details and in particular any books consulted. Which is how I came to realise that I already had one of the biographies mentioned – A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE; it was inevitable that after reading such a strong novel I would want to dive into the background.
Vera Atkins was a key figure in the SOE French Section and prepared many of the female agents who were amongst more than four hundred who were sent behind enemy lines. A large number of these failed to come back, and the book follows Vera as she attempts to find out what happened to them, particularly the twelve young women for whom she felt responsible. It explains how the French Section worked during the war, the status of the female agents which meant that if captured they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, and the struggle Vera had to get permission to carry out her search. It also lays bare just how compromised the SOE operation in France actually was, betrayed to the Gestapo at an early stage, with agents being caught almost as soon as they parachuted onto French soil. One of the more sobering facts is that the lifespan of a radio operator in France was roughly six weeks.
Vera does find out what happened to all of her agents, and it is a really harrowing story of bravery in the face of genuinely wicked cruelty and brutality as her quest for information brings her face to face with the atrocities committed in Natzweller, Ravensbruck and Dachau.
It is also the fascinating story of Vera herself and the secrets she kept; suffice to say she wasn’t exactly what she appeared, and the author’s investigation into Vera’s past is equally fascinating. Again, a book well worth reading to get a sense of a life totally dominated by wartime events.
Around the same time I was reading these two an interesting series was being broadcast on TV which was also about the impact of wartime events on post-war lives. The Bletchley Circle is the story of four friends who had worked as code-breakers during the war and use their skills to investigate and unmask a serial killer through patterns that only they seem able to see. The compulsion that causes the murderer to kill in the way he does points out again the impact of wartime on the minds of those who experienced it (though actually his character is rather ambivalent, besides being a murderous psychopath of course) but the thing that stuck out for me was the four friends themselves, who had carried out important work that they couldn’t discuss even with their families, and the way their lives seemed so dull in the aftermath that they would put themselves in such danger to catch a killer.
And just finally, a few weeks ago a memorial was erected in London to one of Vera’s agents, Nora Inayat Khan, who met one of the most brutal of ends with genuine bravery. One of those periods in history we mustn’t forget.