39 women were SOE agents in France during WW2. They were all remarkable
At the beginning of this book Mawer tells us, that of the group of people who came under the aegis of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the last war, and became undercover agents in occupied France, working with the resistance, 39 were women.
12 of these 39 were captured and killed, one died of an ilness, and the other 26 survived the war. Some became known through books and films which told their stories, some remain anonymous. And, Mawer’s final sentence in this Foreword. ‘They were all remarkable’
Well, of course. It takes, we must imagine, a very unusual and special sort of person indeed to possess the skills, the mind, the heart, the guts, the integrity, courage, ruthlessness, commitment – and of course the ability to handle the unremitting danger and vigilance, duplicity and guile to lead this life.
Here is the imagined story of one such, and being Mawer, I expected that there would be a cracking skilled narrative, that there would be finely and well drawn characters, major and minor, that there would be the skilled craft of writing itself, and that there would be philosophical conundrums which would nudge, tease and batter away at me as i read the novel, and afterwards.
All this is there, and Mawer did not disappoint, in any way. I had the curious sensation, from the very start of the book that I was completely safe, and could surrender to Mawer, knowing once again I was reading a very good book, by a good writer, and would not be constantly pulled out of the act of reading by poor use of language itself, sloppy unreal characterisation or implausible plotting. So – safe as a reader, reading a book which does everything to make the reader feel constantly unsafe, constantly anxious, constantly confused, constantly with no real hold on safe reality, or of self-identity. In other words, the reader surrenders to the central character, and the shifting world of her many identities.
Mawer keeps the unpredictability of the narrative – what WILL happen next, who IS this person, really, right up to the final abrupt ending. Which I am still thinking about. Is this the right ending for the book? Indeed, can there be? Several questions are raised, and Mawer does not answer them – and actually, this is part of his skill and confidence as a writer, the ability to leave certain questions a dangle. There is, for example, one particularly shadowy character whose role is never explained – and that is exactly what life is like, not every person within our lives actually HAS a role within it, yet, an outside observer, trying to write our narratives, might assume that a person on the periphery is more central, or assume a figure which is central is peripheral. It is all part of the uncertain, shifting, not to be trusted or taken for granted place that the narrative of this book inhabits
Photograph of Monument to Violette Szabo, Wikimedia Commons