“Merde alors! That was all you ever said. Merde alors! she thinks, a prayer of a kind, as the red light blinks off and the green comes on and the dispatcher shouts, ‘Go!’ and there’s his hand on her back and she lets go, plunging from the rough comfort of the fuselage into the raging darkness over France.”
In this novel about a woman who works in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II, author Simon Mawer focuses on Marian Sutro, a composite character representing the fifty-four women who served in France between May, 1941, and September, 1944. Of those real women, thirteen were murdered by the Germans following their capture. Recruited to perform extremely dangerous duties, all these women were fluent in French and often bilingual, and all of them were willing to perform under extraordinarily dangerous conditions.
Marian herself is a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force when she is recruited for more serious duties and sent to remote Meoble Lodge in Scotland for SOE training. She attends parachute school and becomes a paratrooper, a skill she will need when she is dropped into occupied France to help ferry scarce supplies to the allies and help ferry out people who urgently need to return to England – or are needed by the British for their unique skills in the war effort at home. She practices to become a sharpshooter, and learns codes and double codes so she can operate as a “pianist,” a wireless operator. She develops physical strength and speed and eventually spends several days on her own undergoing final testing in a remote area where she must avoid tails, find food and safe houses, and refuse to give up information if intercepted.
Known to her team as Alice, she carries identification papers as Anne-Marie Laroche, a name that changes when necessary. Just before she leaves for France, she gains additional responsibilities as part of Wordsmith, a top secret group responsible for atomic research. Her primary responsibility for them is to spirit a former flame, Clement Pelletier, away from the lab at the College de France and get him aboard a small plane to England, where he will join some of his former colleagues who have also escaped.
While thinking of her growing responsibilities one day beside a river in the countryside, Marian notices that “In the water there were trout beneath the surface, hanging in the flow and swinging their tails against the current. That was what an agent had to be,” she decides, “a fish in water, entirely at home. But at Meoble Lodge they had learned how to catch trout by placing their hands in the icy stream beneath the animals and then flipping them, helpless, out onto the bank.” Even fish in water are subject to extreme danger from anyone determined enough to catch them.
Marian’s work takes her throughout much of France, from the drop areas in the southwest to Paris. Everyone she meets is a potential enemy and a potential traitor, and she must operate on her own most of the time. Many different factions with many different goals operate among the allies in France, and additional dangers from the police, French collaborators, and the Germans, make every moment a trial, especially in Paris. “The danger of Paris is a cancer within you, invisible, imponderable, and probably incurable,” she notes. Despite all this, Marian does manage to find comfort with two men, as she tries to figure out whether she is in love with both, with one, or with neither.
Like his more serious literary fiction, such as The Glass Room, The Fall, The Gospel of Judas, and Mendel’s Dwarf, Trapeze is full of excitement, but unlike those novels, this one is an entertainment, with a “Maisie Dobbs” quality – historically focused and fun to read but less serious stylistically and thematically than literary fiction. While the reader will learn new information about occupied France and the efforts made by the British to turn the tide against Germany, Marian’s own story feels thin. Her character at the beginning seems to be that of a smart, somewhat fun-loving girl with a sense of mischief, but that characterization wanes as the novel progresses and Marian becomes more predictable. The many plot lines which take her all over France do little to enhance our real understanding of how she thinks and how much she grows, and the love stories sometimes feel like a distraction, rather than an integral, necessary part of the novel. Some betrayals are foreshadowed from early in the novel, and some of the repeating villains are stereotypes.
The novel’s focus on the women who helped advance Britain’s goals within occupied France provides enough impetus to make this an interesting adventure story, but while individual events hold their excitement, the plot ultimately feels almost as chaotic as the war itself. One is never sure, in the conclusion, just how much Marian has actually grown during her tour of duty, and how much she is at the whim of fate, and she and the people with whom she works never seem to develop into living, breathing humans. The statement by one of Marian’s superiors, early in the novel, proved sadly prophetic: “From now on, it is not your work that is secret; your whole life is secret…You have to appear to be dull and uninteresting. It is a particular skill.” Perhaps it is this secrecy which makes Marian less appealing than one might have wished, but the exciting events and wartime drama which highlight the work of the women in the SEO will keep most readers on the edge of their seats.
ALSO by Simon Mawer: THE GLASS ROOM
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.knihazlin.cz
The giclee print of trout in water by Bern Sundell appears on http://www.riverstonegallery.com
Parachute school: http://www.squidoo.com
The Citroen Traction Avant, the classic car used by enemies of the allies, appears throughout this novel and may be found on http://upload.wikimedia.org
Cavendish Lab at Cambridge University is where atomic research was done by the British during World War II and where the allies hoped that Dr. Clement Pelletier would work if Marian could spirit him out of France. http://www.cambridge2000.com