Haunting and beautifully crafted

2012-10-03 00:00


The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Simon Mawer

Little, Brown

INTEREST in the complexities of World War 2 does not wane, and as historians probe hitherto unknown corners of that conflict, novelists hurry to keep up.

The territory is familiar to Simon Mawer, who has already produced one acclaimed novel, The Glass Room, set between 1939 and 1945.

Now he focuses on the women (there were 39 of them) sent into France by the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) between 1941 and 1944. Of these, 12 were murdered following capture by the Germans, one died there of meningitis, and the remaining 26 survived. Some became well-known: their stories were published and even celebrated in film. Others remained obscure.

This is the imagined story of just such an obscurity, Marian Sutro. An outsider, the daughter of a diplomat, she’s half French and half British. She’s bright and resourceful, and her French is flawless.

It’s logical that she should be recruited from her desk job to go undercover in wartime France. This, of course, requires training, in sabotage, dead drops, how to cope with interrogation and how to kill.

Deemed ready, she’s parachuted into southwest France, her official mission to act as a Resistance courier. Her real destination, though, is Paris, where she must track down family friend Clement Pelletier. Once the object of her adolescent desires, he’s a nuclear physicist engaged in the race for a new and terrifying weapon, and he and his work are of vital importance to Marian’s superiors.

But the book’s not just an exciting adventure story. Marian is indeed acutely intelligent and toughened by her training in the arts of espionage and combat, but otherwise she’s woefully immature. She views the world in naively childish black-and-white: us-and-them, good-and-bad. As she struggles through the strange landscape of German-occupied France, its people bitter and fearful, yet resolute in their resistance, she learns that war changes everything, and that neither love nor fatherland may be trusted.

A wonderfully subtle writer, Mawer quietly evokes war-ravaged, down-at-heel France so vividly that it seems almost a living character in the novel. His handling of Marion’s emotional unfolding, as she begins to glimpse the cruelly ambiguous realities of “patriotism” oneself, is almost breathless with apprehension. A haunting novel, beautifully crafted. Masterly.


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