Friday, May 25, 2012

Trapeze, by Simon Mawer

Other Press, 2012
published in the UK as The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Little, Brown)
371 pp

“Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”

I'm back in my historical-fiction element with Trapeze, a novel that is set in England, Scotland and France during  World War II.  Since reading Mawer's The Glass House, which I really liked, I've been waiting for something new from this author, and it's finally here in a story about a woman in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)  , an organization created to, among other acts of espionage, help local resistance units in their efforts against the Nazis.   Unlike The Glass House, Trapeze takes place over a brief span of time; like The Glass House, it will leave you thinking about this story for a long time after you've turned the last page. 

Marian Sutro is a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF); as the novel opens she has been recruited by the Inter-Services Research Bureau, an organization which "trains people to work in France." Everything is hush-hush; she is not allowed to talk to anyone about what she is doing -- her parents think she's being trained as a nurse. Sent to Scotland for training, Marian goes through an intense series of courses, learning everything from parachuting and  commando skills to other more covert espionage techniques designed to prepare her for the "clandestine life." All of this work is done in preparation for Marian's launch into the French countryside to aid in the resistance effort.   She meets and befriends others working for the SOE, among them a young woman named Yvette who is worried she'll be booted out of the program before she can get to France, and Benoit, a young man who is very attracted to her.  A most important piece of advice Marian and her fellow trainees are given comes in the form of a quotation from one of the fables of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian: "Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés," -- to live happily, live hidden.

Before she actually leaves for France, Marian, now "Alice," is directed to meet with some people from a different government department, one more secret than the group who originally recruited her.  In addition to the duties she is to undertake for the Special Operations Executive, she is given an additional secret assignment that could help the Allies win the war if successful.  The parachute mission, codenamed "Trapeze" sends her into the southwest of France as Anne-Marie Laroche,  but before too long, she is ordered to Paris, which as Marian very quickly discovers, is a very dangerous place.  Everyone there has the potential of being a collaborator with, or even worse, an agent of the Nazi occupation; she has arrived in a Paris that is a "city inhabited by ... ghosts of young men, ghosts of Jews, ghosts of communists and socialists,"  where the danger, as she puts it, is a "cancer within you, invisible, imponderable, and probably incurable.” When her first-schoolgirl love Clément Pelletier, who remained in Paris during the German occupation, discovers why she's really there, he laughingly refers to her as "The daring young girl on the flying trapeze;" a phrase not too far off the mark, as it will turn out later.

Marian starts out as a young girl who relishes the risk and the potential for actually living; as the recruiter explains, her mission has the chances of survival set about "fifty-fifty," ... "the toss of a coin:"
"How could she not feel fear? But it was the fear that she had felt skiing, the fear of plummeting steepness, the fear she had had when her uncle had taken her climbing, the awe-inspiring fear of space beneath her feet, a feer that teetered on the very edge of joy. She wanted to make a grand gesture, to laugh with happiness and cry Yes!, even to leap out of her chair and throw her arms around this strange man with his shrill portents of doom."
In these early days, she wants to seem "extraordinary in the eyes of the anonymous passerby -- brilliant, adventurous, brave, "and in some ways there is a sense that to Marian the whole thing is a game, and there are many references to a game she played as a child with her brother and Clément called "Pig in the Middle." In one example, during a free-day hike in  Scotland, she and her friend Yvette come across commandos in training, and  Marian comes out of hiding yelling "Bang! Bang!...You're dead," giving herself and Yvette away.    But once in France, it isn't long before she realizes that very real lives may be at stake, including her own; if she's going to play the great game and do it well, those lives depend on her having the "particular skill" to  "appear to be dull and uninteresting."   

The novel reads like an adventure story with a bit of romance thrown in; and while it may be much less of a literary work than his Glass House, what makes this book stand out from other spy-type novels is Mawer's pacing and his prose. He slowly, step by step, ratchets up the reader's degree of interest in this character, going through her recruitment and training, lolling a bit with the love interest and the pre-mission days and into a quiet streak in rural France. But the big payoff is her time spent in Paris. These scenes are the best in the novel, where the reader is there right along with her -- and the combined suspense and unease suddenly become palpable. Combined with his wonderful writing,  Mawer has produced a novel that can only be described as haunting; it becomes even more poignant as you reach the ending, because it hits you that he's based his character Marian on real women who did their parts to bring an end to the war --  all the while knowing and running the risks involved in their missions. On the negative side,  I could have done without Marian getting over her Catholic guilt regarding masturbation and the sex scenes were kind of pointless.  But really, those are minor niggles -- Trapeze is a fine novel, and would be of interest to anyone who reads and enjoys historical fiction.


  1. I loved this book too! It is interesting to see that you were annoyed by the sex scenes too. I agree they were the only bad part of the novel and the book would have been so much better without them.
    But that ending made up for it. The last but one chapter worried me slightly - I thought it might have ended predictably, but I was so pleased it ended how it did. Perfect!

    1. Thanks! I actually read it in one sitting and couldn't put it down. Now I'm afraid we'll be waiting for a while for Mawer's next book -- :(

      As far as the end, well, I did think it was a bit sudden, but definitely well done.

  2. This has come out in the UK under the title "The Girl Who Fell from the Sky' and is sitting on my shelves having been picked up from the library on Friday. It will be next weekend before I can get to it, which is galling. If you are at all interested in the true story of the SOE then can I recommend Leo Mark's book 'Between Silk and Cyanide'. Marks (the son of the co-owner of 84 Charing Cross Road) worked for them and his account is very readable indeed.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I picked up Between Silk and Cyanide and a couple of other titles just before finishing Trapeze, knowing I wanted to read something about the SOE.

      I think I read somewhere that there was a US book entitled "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky," and that Trapeze was renamed here to avoid confusion.

      I hope you like the book!

  3. You're welcome. I'm not much into US crime fiction (although I periodically pick up a book or two in that area) but thanks for the link.


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