Book review: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

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Simon Mawer’s tense tale of one woman’s war places him among the best writers of the genre

In a prefatory note, Simon Mawer tells us that “the French section of the Special Operations Executive sent 39 women into the field between May 1941 and September 1944. Of these, 12 were murdered, following their capture by the Germans, and one died of meningitis during her mission. The remainder survived the war.” His heroine, Marian Sutro is one such woman, but, though the novel is dedicated “to the memory of Colette, one of the women of SOE”, there is no suggestion that Marian is anything but a fictitious character. Nevertheless it is clear that, in writing this gripping, evocative and moving novel, Mawer has drawn on the lives and histories of some of these remarkable women. The result is an exercise in the imaginative recreation of the past that is utterly convincing and seems chillingly authentic.

Marian is very young, bilingual, the daughter of an English diplomat and French mother. In the opening chapter she is in a plane over France, about to be dropped, along with a young Frenchman called Benoit, to liaise with the Resistance. We then flash back to her recruitment, and an evening in London, when Benoit, then unknown to her, and charming but a little drunk, tries to pick her up, before she gives him the brush-off and leaves to have dinner with her brother, Ned, a nuclear physicist.

The novel is in three sections. First, her training. Mawer has evidently researched this thoroughly, but does not overburden his narrative with the fruits of his research. Attention is focused on Marian, and the sort of girl she is – delightful but difficult, nervous but determined, with a mind of her own and a keen and happy sense of the ridiculous. She is also the subject of a tug-of-war between two branches of the Security Service. There is a French nuclear physicist, Clement, a friend of her brother, but also her first love. It was a love that was reciprocated, though she was only 16 and Clement in his mid-twenties. They want him in England to work on the bomb. Can she persuade him to come?

The second section is set in the south-west, around Toulouse, after the drop. It has its moments of excitement, but these are balanced by charm and comedy. In short, though Marian, or Anne-Marie (her nom de guerre) is, like all agents and members of the Resistance, always in danger, the prevailing mood is happiness. She finds the boss of their outfit demanding and tiresome, but also comic, and she is falling in love with the exuberant and irreverent Benoit. He is every bit as delightful a character as she is. They are perfectly matched and you really hope that somehow they will live happily ever after.

Everything changes when orders come for her to go to Paris to seek out Clement. She finds a Paris she never knew; a grey cold city where danger lurks at every corner, spies and informers are everywhere, and everyone is hungry and afraid.

The evocation of this diminished and frightening Paris is masterly; I can’t think it could have been better done. She has two tasks: to find out about the fate of members of a network that has been betrayed and extricate its only survivor, and to persuade Clement to go to England. The relationship with him is edgy, affectionate but doubtful, partly because he is now married (though he has got his Jewish wife out of the Occupied Zone), partly because he is still in love with the 16 year-old girl she no longer is. Mawer cranks up the tension; as spy stuff this is as good as Le Carré or Eric Ambler, no higher praise possible. Nothing is overdone. Details and description serve the double purpose of advancing the narrative and deepening the dark mood.

I have rarely read a novel that made fear so acute, almost tangible. As a reader I was gripped; as a novelist who has written about this period, I was admiring and envious. When the tension is broken with violent action, it seems absolutely right.

It should also be said that Mawer fully understands and explores the complexity of twisted loyalties at a time when almost nothing was simple or straightforward.

The ending is sudden and shocking, perhaps, one may, somewhat resentfully feel, too sudden and too shocking. But that’s how things were then, in those dark years and dark places. There is admittedly a touch of improbability about the way it comes about, but then this was a time when the improbable came all too often.

Simon Mawer has written a novel of high intelligence and creative imagination, strong in plot and wonderfully atmospheric. It is, I think, even better than his last, The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker and Walter Scott prizes. If you don’t read another novel this year, read this one. Mawer’s Paris is in the Simenon class.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky

by Simon Mawer

Little, Brown, 302pp, £16.99