Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: "Code Name Verity" by Elizabeth Wein

"I am a coward," the wireless operator writes on the first page of her confession. In exchange for gentler treatment and a delay of her execution, she has agreed to tell her Nazi jailers everything she knows.

But the pages she fills with words have very little to do with the locations of British airfields, or the types of planes they are sending into the war. Instead, she writes about her dearest friend, Maddie Brodatt--clever Maddie who never gets lost; courageous Maddie who became a licensed pilot just before the war broke out; faithful Maddie who flew the the wireless operator to occupied France, where she was captured.

For page after page she draws out Maddie's story (punctuated with just enough details of airfields and planes to keep her captors interested.) She masks her treason inside memories of their friendship. As time runs short, the prisoner's scheme takes shape: to reach Maddie, if she is still alive, to fulfill their duty, and to take their revenge on the cruel regime that has darkened all of Europe.

  5 out of 5 stars

Any of my dear readers coming over from Facebook probably saw the night I finished reading Code Name Verity (332 pages in 4.5 hours, by the way.) I teared up at a critical moment, then kept reading, expecting the tears to dry over the next couple of pages.

They didn't.

I cried harder and harder. At last I put the book facedown and sobbed into my hands for a few minutes, before finishing the last 30 pages with tears streaming.

I had twenty minutes to pull myself together before my roommate came home. She asked how my day was, and I started crying all over again.  "It's just a boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-ook! I feel so stu-hoo-hoo-pid!" I wailed, while my knees buckled under me. In the end she sat with me on the hallway floor, feeding me fries and laughing at me while I cried my eyes out some more.

And that should be a warning to the readers of an emotional persuasion: don't read this at work, or on the bus, or in polite company.

This may not be everyone's idea of a proper Valentine's Day book review. Believe me when I say that Code Name Verity is nothing else but a romance, brimming over with as much heartbreak and hope as anyone could want in their love story. The author, Elizabeth Wein, frames the deep friendship between Maddie and the narrator in explicitly romantic terms. "It's like being in love," the narrator writes, shortly after her own appearance in the story of Maddie's life, and I feel no urge to argue.
"Which way to the northeast air raid shelter from here?" she asked anxiously. "I get so muddled in the smoke."
Maddie pointed. "Straight line across the grass. Easy peaasy if you're brave enough."
"What about you? Brave enough?"
"I'll be all right. Now I've got something to do--"
They both ducked instinctively as something exploded at the other end of the runway. She squeezed Maddie around the waist and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Kiss me, Hardy! Weren't those Nelson's last words? Don't cry? We're still alive and we make a sensational team."
Then she hitched up her hair to its two-inch above-the-collar regulation point, swabbed her own tears and the grease and the concrete dust and the gunner's blood from her cheeks with the back of her hand, and she was off running again, like the Red Queen.

It's like being in love, discovering your best friend.
Early in the book, I found the narrator irritating. (I'm leaving her name out of this review, because she leaves it out of her confession as long as possible.) Her focus on trivial things and her light tone reminded me negatively of Wither, whose vapid heroine and fluffy plot arc never quite jive with their bleak dystopian setting. I wanted to yell at Code Name Verity, "She is supposed to be a prisoner of the SS! Stop twittering!"

Then it becomes painfully clear that, between the pages she writes, the narrator is being tortured. She rarely dwells on it, but the gruesome details that leak into her confession are chilling. The rambling, flippant confession she writes (in English, to force her captors to translate) is a ploy to gain time, in hopes that Maddie find her. If Maddie is still alive.
Von Linden really should know me well enough by now to realize that I am not going to face my execution without a fight. Or with anything remotely resembling dignity.
I recommend flagging the pages where each of them lists off their fears. Wein shows her hand a bit there--it reveals a number of plot points in advance--but truthfully, that's not a bad way to go about telling a story. Her approach has a certain clean appeal: determine exactly what your characters fear most, then make them face it.

I am deeply pleased with both of the book's main characters. Their respective strengths and weaknesses play well off of one another. The schemes they pull off in collaboration left my mouth hanging open at one point. And, lest the book sound too heavy with all the sobbing I mentioned, their banter makes me laugh!

(Then Wein reminds you that the narrator has burning matches flicked at her if she strays too far from the point.)

Sidenote: Being mostly Scottish in origin myself, I appreciated the narrator's repeated insistence on her identity as a Scot when people lump her in with the English. I had "Auchindoon" running through my head for hours after she started penning bits of Robert Burns poetry to distract her captors--"Behead me or hang me/ That will never 'fear me/I will burn Auchindoon ere the life leave me!"

Dear reader, if you can stomach the suggestions of torture and a little emotional devastation, I cannot recommend Code Name Verity enough. It is intensely engaging and infinitely memorable.

I would be thrilled to see it set next to All Quiet On The Western Front in a high school curriculum, where students could contrast the First and Second World Wars, compare stories of soldiers on the front lines versus the roles played by noncombatants in war, examine both masculine camaraderie and female friendship, as well as learn more about the local resistance movements against the Nazi occupation. Perhaps someday it will be.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  fail?
Content Warning: Nazis, torture, sexual harassment, character deaths

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention: the recurring line "Kiss me, Hardy" is attributed to the last words of Admiral Nelson, dying of a gunshot wound at the battle of Trafalgar. There is some debate as to whether he did in fact say "kiss me" or if it had been "kismet," the Turkish word for "fate," but primary and secondary sources make it pretty clear that the "kismet" theory is a modern invention.

    Also, here's the Hark! A Vagrant version.