From falling to balancing on an ever finer wire
When I finished Mawer’s last book, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, I felt shocked and almost a little bemused by the abrupt ending – though I also reflected that I had no idea what other ending might have been suitable. And I also found it a plus in that book that not every thread had been explained, not every character really revealed and understood.
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was a fictional story, with an initial inspiration coming from the fact that during the Second World War, 39 women had been recruited as agents from England by SOE (Special Operations Executive) to be parachuted into occupied France, to work with the Resistance. What kind of people were these incredibly brave, but also, perhaps unusually addicted to the adrenaline rush, women? Mawer’s book centres on Marian Sutro, a naïve and adventurous young English woman with a Swiss French mother, brought up bilingual, recruited as an SOE agent, eagerly learning the arts of duplicity, subterfuge, living dangerously. Despite all the undoubted danger Sutro is also, in one sense, living free – escaping convention, escaping her family, her past, her history, inventing new identities – and living with a mission, making a difference.
When I realised that Mawer’s new book, Tightrope, would continue Sutro’s story, but would bring her into the period of the cold war, everything fell into place. And I had even more admiration for Mawer, because nothing about the first book, despite the advantage, now, of hindsight, screamed ‘sequel’. Sometimes books with sequels planned are highly unsatisfying BECAUSE they seem structured for book 2.
Tightrope is quite an uncomfortable book in many ways. How does someone who has lived in such an extraordinary way, with preternaturally sharpened senses, prepared to kill, prepared to lie, cheat, use sex casually and ruthlessly to relieve an overwhelming itch or as another tool of manipulation, then manage to live, after the war, back in suburbia, in a more narrowly confined way? That is Mawer’s exploration, and Sutro’s challenging journey.
Mawer gives us a world with a character who is always going to be, a naturally unreliable narrator. Actually, the reader can probably be a lot more sure of Sutro than anyone else within the book can be!
Did I believe the story she told me? I really don’t know. It is perfectly possible to believe two contradictory things at one and the same time – that is one of the brilliant faculties of the human mind. Without it we’d have no war and no religion and precious little else that separates us from the other species.
As a cavil, I wasn’t completely sure about some of Sutro’s sexual encounters, and at times, I was very aware that the writer was male, and wondered how differently a female writer might have explored writing a woman who uses sex without intimacy, in part because of the professional need to hide vulnerability, – which of course includes becoming emotionally intimate – and who also uses sex as an escape from some of the horrors of her past experiences, and as an escape from the humdrum. It wasn’t the fact of Sutro’s sexuality which I was ‘unsure’ about, or even her degree of distance, but (perhaps inevitably) I was aware of the gender of the writer. The sex scenes take place in many ways quite clinically, from the outside, and were where I could not quite engage with the inner world of what Sutro was feeling – I think a female writer may have given a little more insight into Sutro’s emotional responses here.
Nonetheless, I found this a completely absorbing, dislocating, sometimes frightening book. The structure is clever, we learn her story backwards and forwards, and it is partly narrated by Sam Wareham, who initially meets Marian when she is 24 and he is 12. Sam is the son of a family friend, and as the story proceeds into the 50s, and he becomes a young man, from time to time his story connects with Marian. The edgy, shifting politics, as the countries who were Allies during the war shift, split, and take up new positions relative to each other, and the very real spectre of a nuclear arms race gallops apace, from the first horrific atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the race for a thermonuclear device, the hydrogen bomb. Sutro is still at the heart of all this, as her brother, and also the man she first fell in love with, as a sheltered teenager before the war, both became physicists, working on nuclear fission and fusion.
On the desert island, the device called Ivy Mike detonated. A double flash, the flash of the primary followed microseconds later by the flash of the secondary. The primary was a plutonium bomb of the Nagasaki type, releasing a storm of X-rays that flowed down into the secondary and impacted upon the hydrogen atoms in the vacuum flask so fiercely that they fused into helium and, for a fragment of time, into all the atoms of creation and a few more besides……..The island on which the device had been constructed vanished entirely. The thermonuclear age had begun.
I was left with perhaps a clearer understanding of why some ‘real’ individuals may have acted in certain ways which seemed incomprehensible or motivated solely by motives of personal gain or a kind of emotional pathology. Without preaching, or indeed special pleading, Mawer makes the reader examine the moral maze of the times.
And, for what it’s worth, the ending of this book is wonderfully satisfying. Mawer brings in, in both books, the idea of a rather fiendish chess game variant, where you only see your own pieces on your own board, and can’t see the moves your opponent is playing – this becomes a kind of metaphor for Marian, as she begins to be drawn into still deadly games in a world ostensibly at peace. And, yes, Mawer too is playing that game, and the end, where he finally shows us the board with all its pieces, the game across two books, is brilliant, and I laughed in delight and admiration.
I received this as an ARC from the publishers, Little Brown, via Netgalley. UK publication is on June 4th, but ALAS Statesiders, I’ve had an email from the publishers to say you will have to wait until November 3rd. Isn’t that CRUEL. I suggest booking a holiday next month in the UK and making the nearest decent bookshop a first item on your tour. Otherwise, i suppose there is ordering from the UK, or calling in favours from your UK resident family or friends