In the US, Simon Mawer’s new novel The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is rather more optimistically entitled Trapeze. It opens as a girl with three aliases hurls herself through
an aircraft hatch into occupied France. She’s an SOE spy, and the life she’s fallen into has all the surrealism of a circus. During her training a woman had told the young, bilingual
agent, ‘We girls have an advantage over the men. We can always carry items – messages and the like – where no gentleman will ever see them. You might call it inside
information.’ Heeding her advice, the spy (Marian is her natural name) takes a pair of radio crystals, wraps them in a condom, and buries the package inside herself. She’s good to go.
Mawer is a masterful storyteller. He knows exactly when to quicken the pace, exactly when to suspend the critical moment. His description of France during the Occupation is utterly convincing, from
the farmland that serves as the parachute landing pad, to the intricacies of the 5th arrondissement. But elements of the story remain shadowy. Mawer (putting his years of science teaching to good
use) can wax on about atoms, but we’re left in the dark at several points as to the details of communication. We witness Marian morse-coding her way onto the wireless, but as to how one spy
circuit is communicating with another often remains a foggy issue. One can’t help feeling that this isn’t just a reflection of that reality.
Marian Sutro isn’t based on any particular historical agent, but her experience rings true with that of many sent into the field in the mid-war years. She neither falls nor is she pushed into
that boggy field. Sniffed out for her fluency in French and English and familiarity with both their terrains, Mawer sketches with admirable subtlety why it is that she’s worth her salt. But
is war the making or breaking of her? An outspoken twenty year-old becomes less and less certain of who she is, of what she wants. In some ways her service comes at the wrong time, in other
respects perfectly in tandem with her burgeoning maturity. For years she has harboured a crush on a Frenchman named Clèment, now eagerly sought in England for his scientific expertise;
it’s thought he has the ingredients to create the perfect ‘A’ Bomb.
Mawer persists in drawing a rather hackneyed comparison between Marian as Alice, her first nom de guerre, and Alice in Wonderland. As a civilian Marian, suitably enough, lives in
Oxford. She walks along the banks of the Cherwell just before falling into the wonderland of SOE life and tells a fellow agent, quite coldly, that she wants to lose her virginity before leaving for
France. The situation is later reversed in a brilliantly strung-out tension as Alice experiences love, or something approaching it, impinging upon duty, but not quite in the manner the reader
anticipates. Emotion is never certainty, but by comparison with the oddities of duty – the constant peering over the shoulder, the dead-drops, the struggle to bring to fruition a plan with
outcome unknown – it feels real, and is the more fathomable for it.
Life becomes so knotty and timescales so unclear amid the escalating drama that it is increasingly difficult to stand aloof from Marian’s story; in a metaphor Mawer would relish, one tumbles
after her down the rabbit hole. Gripping and moving in equal measure, his story, Marian’s story, is unforgettable.
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Simon Mawer, is published by Little, Brown £16.99