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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
I confess that my resolve wavered a little during the early chapters of Elizabeth Wein’s terrific novel, “Code Name: Verity.” This wasn’t because I found Wein’s fictional account of two gallant young women participating in the Allied war effort during the 1940s the least bit unconvincing — to the contrary, it’s the novel’s unflinching exploration of what it meant to aid the French Resistance that daunted me. Queenie, the character who narrates the first half of “Code Name: Verity,” is a Scottish spy who has been caught by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a once-grand hotel; this portion of the book is meant to be her confession, written at the command of her captors. “I am a coward,” Queenie announces at the very beginning. “I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden interrogating me again.”
Born to an old aristocratic family, pretty and bold and a whiz at languages, Queenie, in her early 20s, got parachuted into occupied France because she is fluent enough in German to pass as a native. She gave herself away by looking the wrong direction before crossing a French street, only days after she arrived. She has surrendered all sorts of information — everything she had, really — to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, and fully expects to be executed once she has finished writing, so she spins her “confession,” Scheherazade-style, over many pages, winding a spell around von Linden by recounting the adventures of her best friend, an English farmer’s daughter named Maddie.
Given the bleakness of this scenario (Wein doesn’t even allow us to see Queenie as a hero; she’s reviled by the other prisoners for talking), I wasn’t sure I could bear to go on. Morven Christie’s performance as Queenie made the developing story of Maddie and Queenie’s friendship at once more engaging and more unbearable. Could I stand to see this smashing girl meet her fate? Yet how could I abandon her? On balance, however, Christie makes leaving unthinkable.
Then, halfway through, “Code Name: Verity” switches to Maddie’s version of the story, and Christie hands the mic over to Lucy Gaskell. Maddie is that rare creature in the 1930s and ’40s, a female pilot, and while not allowed to participate in combat missions, she did, through a breach of protocol, fly the plane that dropped Queenie into France. Queenie thinks Maddie died in a subsequent crash, but that turns out to be a lie — and far from the only deception practiced in “Code Name: Verity.” Much of Queenie’s narrative is not what it seems.
Wein has written a puzzle novel whose cleverness never overwhelms its spirit and heart. Although published as YA (Young Adult) fiction, it’s a bit of an odd duck in the genre. Its accounts of Nazi torture and death camps are serious and frank (and, it should be added, quite true to the fates of the many brave young people, male and female, who fought for the French Resistance), which will make it too disturbing for some youthful readers. And there’s no dreamy romance, an apparent requirement in YA books for girls these days.
Instead, “Code Name: Verity” is about female camaraderie and valor. Maddie and Queenie, who meet in the service, instantly cross class divisions to become best friends. It wasn’t just romances that broke the rules during wartime, after all. Maddie marvels at Queenie’s improvisational daring and Queenie views Maddie’s piloting talents as a pure and beautiful art that transcends the dirty expediencies of war. For all the intricacies of its plotting, this novel is rooted in character, and its two leads are so vividly acted by Christie and Gaskell that I feel it’s my duty to warn you not to listen to the end when driving. While “Code Name: Verity” is a more uplifting novel than I expected during those first few chapters, you still may have a hard time seeing the road through your tears.
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