Marian Sutro, barely 20 years old and just out of convent school, seems destined for privileged obscurity. Her father was a British diplomat, her mother a proper Frenchwoman, her hometown the placid Swiss banking city of Geneva. But World War II turns the world upside down, and the girl, whose family is now back in Britain, puts on a uniform to work in a tracking station for Royal Air Force bomber crews.
It’s at that point in Simon Mawer’s novel “Trapeze” that the really extraordinary stuff begins. Marian is approached by recruiters with the British Special Operations Executive, which ran clandestine sabotage efforts in Europe and beyond during World War II. Her youth means she is inexperienced. Her good looks are a liability in undercover work. But the SOE recognizes something extraordinary in her: an appetite for risk, self-discipline and mature judgment. They’ve chosen shrewdly. As Marian begins the Executive’s demanding training courses, she finds herself instantly and unapologetically attracted to the messy, duplicitous and violent world of clandestine operations.
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Mawer, author of the 2009 novel “The Glass Room,” shortlisted for Britain’s Booker Prize, has written a historical spy novel that simmers with emotions without straying into sentimentality. He is in careful control of his themes and plot, but allows his characters, and especially Marian, to live, breathe and feel, deeply and truly. The amateurs recruited by the SOE aren’t fearless – only the mad are truly fearless in a world where an ill-considered phrase can mean prison camp or death – but struggle to find the strength to face their fears square-on.
The SOE was not a spy agency. It sought more or less ordinary people who spoke the languages of occupied lands to live and work behind the lines, assisting resistance groups conducting sabotage operations. Spies are by necessity charming and gregarious: their job is to seduce or coerce others into betrayal. Marian and her fellow SOE classmates, including a young French soldier named Benoit and the Yvette the brittle wireless telegraph operator, can’t afford to stand out from the crowd. Their aim isn’t to gather information. They are part of an invisible army mustered, in the words of Winston Churchill, to help “set Europe ablaze.”
In the Depths of a Political Winter
The night that Marian parachutes into rural France, the mood of the book shifts. She has left the warm camaraderie of wartime England for the cold suspicion of an occupied land.
Marian is no longer the lovely, animated Marian, but the tense, cautious Anne-Marie, having shed anything that could tie her to her former life. And she must play her new role as if her life depended on it, because of course it does.
Still, she can move with relative freedom in the countryside. It is only after she is dispatched to Paris, to make contact with Clement, a physicist she met years earlier on holiday with her parents, that her real challenges begin. Paris police and German security officers are everywhere, scrutinizing identification cards, watching train stations, stopping at random anyone who looks out of place. The slightest misstep on the city’s cobblestone streets can mean arrest, torture, prison, execution.
Anyone expecting to find the Paris of Hemingway and Picasso, of glitter and glam, in “Trapeze” will be disappointed. With a few deft strokes, Mawer manages to paint a convincing portrait of a different Paris, one shivering in the depths of political winter, stripped of ease and luxury, filled with sinister shadows cast by the German occupation.
“From the moment she steps out of the house she assumes she is being followed. Always assume the worst, one of the instructors warned them: a pessimist makes the best agent. Around the Sorbonne she mingles with students going to lectures, walking into one of the great courts and out by a different exit to see if she can tease a follower out of the crowd. In the rue Saint-Jacques she gazes into shop windows and scans the reflection of the other side of the street, looking for loiterers, looking for anyone who might be looking for her.”
A Man to Love and Trust?
For Marian, love can also be a trap. Can she trust the men she has fallen in love with? Benoit, who parachutes into France with her, is as brave as she is and eager to return fight the Germans. But he is a callow youth, coltish and seems somewhat empty-headed.
Clement, meanwhile, is described as an older man – how much older it is never made clear. He is suave, attentive, a friend and colleague of her brother’s, whom she met and fell in love with on holiday years earlier. But the reader wonders about what kind of a man would try to seduce the 16 year old sister of his friend. Neither does his conscience bother him when Marian shows up at his doorstep. A short time later, he decides to jettison his young wife, who has fled Paris and is trying to escape the country. Even after Clement tells Marian he loves her, and will only go to Britain if she comes with him, he seems unengaged, showing little understanding of what motivates her or even much concern for her safety.
The tension builds as Marian tries to make contact with Yvette and arrange for Clement’s escape. At one point, a gallant Wehrmacht major offers to help Marian carry her suitcase, which contains Yvette’s contraband wireless transmitter and pistol. Discovery would mean instant arrest, disaster not just for Marian but potentially for everyone she has come in contact with. She manages to remain the icy undercover operative, but only just. “Never hesitate, never appear to be at a loss. If you are undecided you excite interest. People wonder what you are looking for, where you have come from, what your business is.”
In another episode, she is searched in a Paris square by a female security officer who will become Marian’s nemesis. She is released, but can’t let down her guard. “Don’t show relief. Relief is the worst. Anyone can be anxious, fearful even; but relief means that something has happened that merits their attention.”
The book Mawer has written is inspired by the true-life story of Anne-Marie Walters, an SOE agent code-named “Colette,” who like Marian was the daughter of an English diplomat and French mother who grew up in Geneva. Walters wrote an autobiography, “Moondrop to Gascony,” published in 1946, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her service and worked as a translator and editor until her death in France in 1998, age 75.
“Trapeze” benefits from its historical grounding, giving it the feel of an authenticity that espionage novels sometimes struggle to establish. If there are any weaknesses in the book, they relate to the story of Clement, who, despite the author’s efforts, comes across as little more of a plot device: the nuclear scientist who must be kept out of Hitler’s hands.
Mawer also strikes an occasional false note, at least to my thinking, when he has Marian reflect on events using the language and imagery borrowed from Clement’s world, the world of quantum theory and high-energy physics. Somehow, references to the uncertainty principle ring false coming from someone with Marian’s background and training.
Marian’s world is focused on practice rather than theory. She has left the laboratory and the classroom far behind. She isn’t concerned with the invisible world that Clement studies. She has to balance her determination to get him out of France against her need for self-preservation; she must temper her passion and commitment in order to remain in the shadows.
The most difficult problem that Marian faces is between her personality and her goals. It’s a struggle with which many of us can identify, as we try to reconcile who we are with what we must do. And this is the struggle that continues until the last sentence of “Trapeze.”