Monday, October 26, 2015
Tightrope by Simon Mawer
As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutra, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, she has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp, but at what cost?
Returned to an England she barely knows and a postwar world she doesn't understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the monstrosities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mysterious Major Fawley, the man who hijacked her wartime mission in Paris, emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War, she sees a way to make amends for the past and at the same time to find the identity that has never been hers.
Although Tightrope is the sequel to The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, I was able to follow the story without having read the earlier book. The main character is young Marian Sutra, a half-English and half-French spy. She's from a privileged background and quite glamorous in her own right but during World War II suffered after having worked for the French Resistance. She'd helped key people escape from Occupied France but was betrayed, captured by the Nazis, tortured and taken to a concentration camp. Through luck and cunning, she survived the war and was eventually returned to England.
Lost and untethered, she finds that at 24 years of age, she has little interest in returning to University but outside of her knowledge of languages and ability to kill and other wartime skills, she doesn't have much marketable skills. Little to take her to a challenging or interesting job in peacetime. She eventually returns to spy craft but the post war world is disappointing with the Cold War rhetoric, posturing, and the willingness of the players to return to war.
We follow Marian as she undertakes operations, but although it is easy to sympathize with Marian's problems and her affairs, I didn't find myself drawn to her as a character. While Tightrope is an interesting read and it might not be a fair comparison, I far preferred Code Name Verity -- a daring British spy in Occupied Territory is a compelling figure--but the dangers and disappointments of the Cold War give us a very different sort of story.
About the Author:
Simon Mawer was born in 1948 in England. His first novel, Chimera, won the McKitterick Prize for first novels in 1989. Mendel's Dwarf (1997), his first book to be published in the US, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and was a New York Times Book to Remember for 1998. The Gospel of Judas, The Fall (winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature), and Swimming to Ithaca followed, as well as The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Trapeze (Other Press) was published in 2012.