Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Two young women from totally different backgrounds are thrown together during World War II: one a working-class girl from Manchester, the other a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a wireless operator. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted friends.

But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in “Verity’s” own words, as she writes her account for her captors.

Written in first person, the book starts off pretty well, talking about the torture endured under the Germans, about home, about secrets and then it slowly moves to a slightly tamer pace, designed to keep the average housewife entertained but not grossed out.  The author takes breaks from the story to mention little details like neatly arranged hairpins and well maintained fingernails, talk about a ball gown, all kept within the context of the story.

Something that I see authors and filmmakers struggle with is how to portray a strong, kick-ass female who can hang with the boys and still retain her femininity. The heroines are strong women, generic enough to allow the reader to identify with at least one of them, and some of the trials and tribulations are of sentimental nature.

I got bored mid-way through and I struggled really, really hard to finish it. It is definitely designed for a completely different audience than the one I’m in and I think the only reason I picked it up to read it was because I thought it would be a spy story. The only interesting points were when they talked about pilot life. The author, a pilot herself, does a great job of communicating her love of flight, and her clear knowledge of planes adds verisimilitude. The other things… slightly disappointing.

“I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant. But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.”

I liked the idea of the main characters’ friendship better than its depiction; they seem to leap right from getting acquainted to undying sisterhood, with readers missing a step somewhere along the way.

Also, there are the myriad problems with the epistolary format. The first 2/3 or so of the book is supposed to be written by Julie, the captured intelligence officer, as a “confession” for her captors. Unreliable narrators are fun and this keeps the reader guessing.

“But I have told the truth. Isn’t that ironic? They sent me because I am so good at telling lies. But I have told the truth.”

But for the premise to work, we must believe that 1) the Nazi captain is such a lover of literature that he doesn’t mind that his prisoner’s “confession” is actually a novel-length narrative weaving together her own day-to-day life as a prisoner and her best friend’s wartime experiences, and 2) despite that, he’s too dense to realize that she’s not telling the truth–even though the third sentence of her account is “I have always been good at pretending,” even though she paints herself as a gutsy con artist throughout and admits to making up details. That’s a lot to swallow. I’d figured out much of what Julie was hiding halfway through her narrative–for instance, that she liked the translator much more than she let on–and had a hard time believing someone whose job is getting the truth out of prisoners wouldn’t have figured her out too. Wein just does not handle well the tension between an author’s need to give hints to the reader of what’s really going on, and Julie’s need to write a completely convincing document. Interspersing Julie’s story with other documents could have arrived at the same result without making both her and her captors look stupid.

It’s now sitting nicely in the charity bin next town over.

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