No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, June 22, 2013

2013/19: Code Name Verity -- Elizabeth Wein

‘Fräulein Engel, you are not a student of literature,’ he said. ‘The English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing.’ Golly, Engel stared at him. I of course took the opportunity to interpose wi’ pig-headed Wallace pride, ‘I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT.’ Engel dutifully slapped me into silence and said, ‘She is not writing a novel. She is making a report.’ ‘But she is employing the literary conceits and techniques of a novel. And the meeting you speak of has already occurred – you have been reading it for the past quarter of an hour.’ [loc.839]
Code Name Verity is told in two halves: the first half is the confession of Flight Officer Beaufort-Stuart, a.k.a. 'Queenie', a.k.a. 'Verity', a.k.a Julie, a young woman who is being interrogated by the Gestapo. In that half of the novel, there are several passages told from the point of view of Julie's best friend Maddie, who's an ATA pilot. Julie is a Scottish aristocrat; Maddie, the Jewish granddaughter of an immigrant tradesman. "She and I would not ever have met in peacetime." [loc.1708]

The second half of Code Name Verity is Maddie's account of her first encounter with 'Queenie', her wartime experience as a female pilot, her involvement with the French Resistance, and the ultimate test of her friendship with Julie.

If it wasn't already evident from hints and inconsistencies in Julie's narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Julie is not a reliable narrator -- not to the Germans, and not in her own confession. (The latter is unsurprising, given that the journal is being read by Fräulein Engel, the Gestapo translator and occasional torturer.) There are several scenes that are presented first from one point of view, then -- with completely different significance and emotional weight -- from another's.

The shadings of morality in Code Name Verity are as difficult to distinguish as the elements of truth. Von Linden, the Gestapo captain in charge of extracting Julie's confession, is not a stereotypical villainous Nazi but a cultured man who is caught up in his prisoner's story. Some of the Resistance fighters have feet of clay (or worse). Nothing is simple: nobody's loyalty is predicated upon their nationality or their military rank: no one acts only for a single reason.

It's hard to discuss the plot without revealing key aspects. Instead, I'll write about how engaged I was by both Julie and Maddie: by Julie's blend of (self-professed) cowardice and (evident) courage; by Maddie's love of flying and of the machinery that lets her do it; by their friendship, which is much more important to them than any romantic liaisons. (Indeed there are very few of those, and they're mentioned only in passing.) I like Julie's wildly emphatic, almost schoolgirlish, prose style, and Maddie's lyricism when she describes flights over wartime England: "whole and fragile from the air in the space of an afternoon, from coast to coast, holding its breath in a glass lens of summer and sunlight. All about to be swallowed in nights of flame and blackout." [loc.411]

I think this might be one of the best novels about female friendship that I have ever read.

It made me cry. But it also made me smile.

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