The pitch: A British spy is writing her confession for her Nazi captors in France. They’ve tortured wireless codes out of her, and now she’s giving them everything else, in the form of a story: the story of her best friend Maddie, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot whose plane was downed while ferrying the spy to France. She swears she’s telling the truth, but would she really betray her country?
The review: You’ve probably already figured out that our heroine isn’t the most reliable of narrators. She is a spy, after all. What parts of her confession are real? What are Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden and his assistant, Ms. Engel, getting out of it? And who is the narrator, anyway?
This is a pretty impressively well constructed novel. When I got to the second half and things started to make sense, I kept flipping back to read the first half in a new light. I was almost always glad I had.
It’s also pretty impressively well researched. According to Wein’s author’s note (and intriguing bibliography), Maddie’s experiences as a female pilot and the narrator’s as a female spy are plausible. Women played both roles in Britain during the war. Our heroines provide perspectives on the war not often seen in fiction starring women. I especially loved the detailed descriptions of flying by moonlight without maps or lights, and the poignant distinction between life in free England and in occupied France right on the other side of the Channel.
I did not, unfortunately, find it as emotionally compelling as it should have been. The characters are real: they cry under pressure, they fear torture, they bite the bullet and do what must be done anyway. They clearly love each other very much. (A lesbian relationship isn’t textual, but you could read it in without too much effort if you wanted to. It’s not like the characters are telling the whole truth about their lives anyway.) But I never felt for them. I never felt the joy of their friendship, or the terror of the narrator’s capture, even though the book made clear (and I know perfectly well) what Nazis were capable of.
As Thea from Book Smugglers noted, epistolary novels often require some serious suspension of disbelief. In this case, I kept thinking: really, the Nazis are going to keep her alive for weeks so she can write this very literary story with almost no useable information, half of which is a chronicle of their own mistreatment of her? (This is excused in part because the captain, von Linden, is a bit of a cultured Nazi stereotype. He is a student of German literature and appreciates his captive’s literary sensibilities. That’s the most common way to make Nazis sympathetic; I’ve read it so many times it makes me roll my eyes a bit.)
The epistolary structure was probably meant to make the story immediate, but I think it had the opposite effect on me. Because I was reminded to suspend that disbelief on every page, and because I knew that every event I read about had already taken place and the writer had survived, it distanced me from the characters. That emotional distance made the difference between “very good book” and “great book” for me, but many people whose opinions I respect tremendously can’t shut up about how amazingly gut-wrenching it was, so your mileage may vary.
Code Name Verity is YA in that the characters are young (very early 20s, I’d guess). But I suspect I know more adults than teens who’ll appreciate it. It’s slow, for one thing — for all the espionage and torture and war, this is not the book for people who want an action/adventure pace. But it truly is a stunningly constructed, highly original story. If you are a WWII buff, lover of tales of brave women, or connoisseur of unreliable narration, and don’t mind a bit of a slog to get into the story, I’d call this a must-read.