Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do. That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.
He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.
This will probably be one of the vaguer reviews I have written for Turn the Page. It would be unforgivable to spoil anything, and frankly, I doubt I can really do the novel justice. I saved this post to go up on the 8th of March, in honor of International Women’s Day, because it seemed fitting to feature a book that not only celebrates female solidarity, love and friendship but also stars two independent heroines in unconventional, dangerous roles for their time.
Every once in a while, a book comes along that you just know, before you’ve even turned to the first page, is going to be something very special.
Code Name Verity is that book.
I knew from one glance of the synopsis that I would love this. Set during WWII? Told in diary-like form? Two strong female leads, one a pilot, the other an undercover spy in the hands of the Gestapo? I was immediately sold and anticipated it’s release for months.
There are many reasons why I love this book so much. I can often be nudged into loving a story with a mediocre plot or average writing, if I care enough about the characters. Code Name Verity, with its vivacious heroines (and they truly do deserve the title) and it’s intricately crafted plot, brought to life in the hands of a skilled writer, was quite simply, a pure joy to read.
Verity, whose confession we are reading, is a collaborator. A captured undercover agent who makes a deal with the SS to divulge national secrets to the enemy in exchange for the barest of comforts. In war-time that makes her pretty much the lowest of the low. Her unusual report is disrupted by random outbursts of hatred towards her captures, hints of sarcasm, foolish taunts guaranteed to lead to punishment and periodic ramblings, such as admiring the embossed stationery she has been given to write on (or complaining about the recipe cards she is later forced to use). She reads like a young woman whose composure is slowly crumbling, defiant in a child-like way, spoilt, weak, almost petulant.
And so very, very human. I couldn’t bring myself to despise Verity, no matter how many codes she handed over in exchange for her clothing. We begin Code Name Verity knowing the worst. Verity is a spy in the hands of the Gestapo. It’s 1943. There’s no rescue coming for her. She knows, and we know, there is only one possible outcome. It’s simply a matter of time and Verity has bargained herself some. How many of us could honestly say we wouldn’t do the same in her position?
It’s through Verity’s report that we are introduced to Maddie, as she recounts their first meeting and consequent friendship, leading up to her arrival in France. It’s because of Maddie that Verity, with her fear of flying, knows more than even she realised about planes and various British airfield locations that she is able to pass on to the SS. Maddie, a radio operator in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) with a passion for flying, is the quieter, steadier, of the two. They are such unique, vivid characters, the unlikeliest of friends, and quite possibly one the best female friendships I’ve read.
There really aren’t enough young adult novels out there that feature, strong, passionate, brave, intelligent women with skills, interests and aspirations of their own. It’s frustrating that a lot of heroines, particularly, it seems, within YA, are defined by or remembered for, their love interest. Very few female protagonist stand in memory on their own. Fewer books still, show a supportive female friendship. More often than not, female characters are viewed as a rival and there’s the ever popular, stereotypical ‘mean girl’. My own girlfriends have formed some of the most important relationships in my life and I loved that Code Name Verity really captures that.
Wein brings to life vivid, multifaceted characters with loyalties, stories and motivations beyond the page. Characters I couldn’t help but love, Verity, Maddie, Jamie. Lady Beaufort-Stuart, whose window is always left open in the hopes that so many lost children caught up in a devastating war will find their way home. Villains such as Von Lindon, the terrifying, unmovable Nazi interrogator, who enjoys reading and discussing banned literature and keeps his own daughter safely shielded from the war and his dirty job. The Nazi officer whose own family is a part of the French resistance.
Code Name Verity is an epistolary novel with an interesting mix of narratives that do take a little getting used to. Verity writes in the 1st person, switching to 3rd whenever she recounts her past, concealing her identity. I know a few readers have been slightly put off by this and by the detailed accounts of wartime aircraft scattered throughout the first half of the novel (something I very much enjoyed reading about). Like everything in this cleverly constructed novel, there is a reason for it. And I can only urge you to not let this stop anyone from picking up this book.
Moving, poignant, heartbreaking. Code Name Verity is a rare treat, a fascinating glimpse into women’s lesser known roles during the war, loyalty, love and what it means to be brave.
Check back later today for an in-depth interview and guest post with Elizabeth Wein!
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