- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Marian Sutro, the heroine in Simon Mawer’s “Trapeze” (Other Press trade paperback, 384 pages, $15.95) has abilities that have attracted the attention of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British equivalent of the OSS of the U.S. She’s bilingual, with a French mother and a British father who was a diplomat at the League of Nations in Geneva. She’s familiar with France and Paris. And as a young woman, she’s less likely to attract the attention of the Gestapo and SS — or so her handlers reason. Most of the Frenchmen her age have been recruited — forced, really — to labor in Germany’s war plants.
In World War II London Marian’s background is so special that she’s recruited from her post with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force’s (WAAF) Filter Room to become part of the resistance, trained at age 19 to blow up trains, send messages she’s encrypted by Morse code and even kill if it’s necessary. She and other agents know that they’ll be executed if they are captured, as were German agents in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Mawer’s page-turning historical novel is based on fact: In a note at the beginning of the book he writes that the French section of the SOE sent 39 women into the field between May 1941 and September 1944: “Of these, twelve were murdered following their capture by the Germans while another died of meningitis during her mission. The remainder survived the war. Some of these women became well known to the public through films and books that were written about them. Others remained, and remain, obscure. They were all remarkable.”
Readers with good memories will immediately compare Mawer’s book to “Charlotte Gray”, a 1999 novel by Sebatian Faulks, made into a 2001 movie directed by Gillian Armstrong starring Cate Blanchett in the title role. I’ve seen the movie — and skimmed the novel— and I found Mawer’s novel outstanding in its portrayal of Marian Sutro and the other people in the book. Other readers might compare Mawer’s WWII Europe to American author Alan Furst’s works. I’ve read Furst — an outstanding writer — and I can state that Mawer’s literary voice is original.
Marian is quickly assigned to FANY, the humorous-to-Marian acronym for the deadly serious First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, an independent unit affiliated with but not part of the Territorial Army — the British equivalent of America’s National Guard and enlisted reserves. FANY was active in both nursing and intelligence work during both World Wars. She’s trained at a secret “school for spies” camp in the Scottish highlands and parachutes into France to join the WORDSMITH resistance network.
During her training, she’s recruited — hijacked might be a better description — by another spy agency to go to Paris from her posting in rural southwest France to persuade a man she knew before the war —a research physicist at the College of France named Clement —to join the Allied war effort. He’s an older family friend and Marian had a crush on him — and still does. Most of the physicists in Europe have fled to England, Canada and the United States to work on the atomic bomb project, including Marian’s older brother Ned, but Clement remained in occupied France. The SOE wants him in England and Marian’s task is to persuade him to leave.
Marian’s exploits are the author’s tribute to the 39 women of the French section of the SOE — and the 13 who didn’t return— much as the film “The Great Escape” is dedicated to the 50 POWs who were murdered by the Nazis. One of the qualities of good historical fiction is how it blends fact and fiction. By this yardstick, Mawer’s “Trapeze”, blending action, love, betrayal and death, is a success.
Here’s an excerpt from “Trapeze”, from the publisher’s website:
The plane tilts, turning in a wide circle, engines roaring. Up in the cockpit she can imagine the pilot searching, searching, straining to see the tiny glimmers of torchlight, which means that they are expected down there in the moonlight. A light comes on in the roof of the fuselage, a single, unblinking red eye. The dispatcher gives the thumbs up. “HE’S FOUND IT!”
There’s a note of admiration and triumph in his shout, as though this proves what wonders his crew are able to perform, to come all this way in the darkness, eight hundred miles from home, and find a pinprick of light in a blackened world. He attaches the static line from their parachutes to the rail on the roof of the fuselage and double checks the buckles of their harnesses. The aircraft makes one pass over the dropping zone and she can hear the sound of the containers leaving the bomb bay and see them flash beneath, their canopies billowing open. Then the machine banks and turns and steadies for the second run. “YOUR TURN NOW!” the dispatcher yells at the pair of them.
“Merde, alors!” Benoit mouths to Marian, and grins. He looks infuriatingly unconcerned, as though this is all in the normal run of things, as though as a matter of course people throw themselves out of aircraft over unknown countryside in the middle of the night.
She sits with her feet out through the hole, in the slipstream, like sitting on a rock with your feet in the water, the current pulling at them. Benoit is right behind her. She can feel him against the bulk of her parachute pack, as though the pack has become a sensitive extension of her own body. She says a prayer, a baby prayer pulled out of childhood memory, but nevertheless a prayer and therefore a sign of weakness: God, please look after me. Which means, perhaps, Father look after me, or Maman look after me, but whatever it means she doesn’t want any sign of weakness now, not at this moment of deliverance with the slipstream rushing past her and the void beneath, while the dispatcher gives her a nod that’s meant to inspire confidence but only brings with it the horror of superstition, that you must never congratulate yourself, never applaud, never even wish anyone good luck. 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 light 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.
About the Author
Simon Mawer is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel “The Glass Room” (Other Press), which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His previous novels include “The Fall” (winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize), “The Gospel of Judas”, and “Mendel’s Dwarf” (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize). English by birth, he has made Italy his home for more than thirty years. www.simonmawer.com