Friday, September 21, 2012

"Trapeze", "Restless" and "The Night Watch": English Women in World War II

A Scene from Female Agents
     Some people are obsessed by the American Civil War and read practically anything about it.  Besides Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, there are few novels about the subject.  However, World War II is a veritable treasure trove for fiction writers.  A number of recent works are worth checking out about various aspects of the war from the British side of things.

     Recently published in trade paperwork is Trapeze by Simon Mawer.  (The British title was The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and it’s both more evocative and accurate).  The story focuses on the training, placement, and complex, double assignment for
a young Anglo-French woman working for SOE (Special Operations Executive).  This was a British spy organization (somewhat akin to OSS in the U.S.), sanctioned by Winston Churchill even though it had a rough start and was neither too popular in Whitehall nor with the armed services, which dropped many agents into France for the purpose of assisting French citizens resist the German occupying forces. 

A Proposed Memorial in
London's Gordon Square
to a Female Muslim Agent 
     Trapeze packs in a lot of story as it moves from London to the Scottish highlands to southern France and, ultimately, to Paris.  As with a number of real SOE agents, the heroine has a peculiar back-story that explains her bilingualism and connections to leading European physicists working on nuclear fission.   Her involvement with a French physicist from when she was a girl has the smattering of a romance novel.  However, there’s a pithy description of how fission actually works.  The nuclear aspect is a MacGuffin that is useful to motivate the heroine to get to Paris, but the plot does not depend on the reader fully understanding the theory.  It’s a plot that gains momentum and is relentlessly suspenseful in its last hundred pages or so.  I’ve refrained from naming the heroine because her name and aliases are central to the theme and to a final, ironic twist.

     William Boyd is a major contemporary British novelist and Restless, published in 2006 and winner of the Costa Award, is thrilling.  It moves back and forth between 1939 and the mid-1970s in England.  A young single mother, who works with international students in Oxford, finds out that her mother is a Russian émigrée and a former British agent working for British Security Coordination.  This is a little-known group that was set up by Britain’s secret service (MI6) under Churchill’s recommendation.  It operated like a commercial communication business, but was actually intended to persuade the U.S. to support British interests and enter World War II.  

Dexter Watches Filming of Restless in Cambridge, England
     Like the later Trapeze, there are scenes of espionage training in Scotland and a number of exciting operations.  However, the plot twists because the agent’s boss may be a double agent, working for the Russians.   Where Boyd raises the book above a genre novel is in refracting the 1940s spy story through the eyes of the daughter.  The British internal security branch (Homeland Security thirty years before the U.S.) defines her students as threats and is even more chilling because it happens during peacetime, rather than war.

     Sarah Waters’ 2006 novel The Night Watch was nominated for the Booker Prize (and should have won).  It’s not a spy novel at all.  Instead, it’s set in London from 1947 going back to 1941.  When I saw it in Borders (ah yes, remember that era?), I really liked the cover.  The cashier said, “Oh, Sarah Waters is excellent and this is wonderful.”  I think so as well.  Waters presents ordinary Londoners living through the Blitz.  It was a period of absolute horror for civilians and yet many people behaved with heroism.

The Beginning of the Affair in The Night Watch
What is subversive about the story is that the main characters are three lesbians, a young single woman involved in a hopeless affair with an unhappily married soldier, and a young man who’s a pacifist.  It’s emotionally layered, passionate, and historically has both a you-are-there directness and vast detail.  It’s also a fresh take on a period readers may believe they already know.  While moving backward, it somehow generates surprising suspense in questioning how and where the characters formed their destinies.  It’s tremendous. 

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