Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Book Review: Code Name Verity


I finished the novel Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein almost a week ago, but it's taken me about that long to get my head organised enough to write this review. Which may I remind you is my first one here on this blog, so it might be a little rough. This is one of those books which it's almost impossible to talk about without revealing elements of the plot, but I'll do my best not to give away too many spoilers.

The Basics
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Country: United States
Genre: YA fiction, historical fiction, thriller
Publication date: May 15, 2012
Pages: 337

Why I Read It
I discovered this book in Waterstones, when I was in the UK last Easter. I was struck first of all by the cover, which in the version I bought is a murky grey with the silhouette of a girl sniffing a rose, with the name 'Verity' circled in red, and the words 'I have told the truth' under the title. I read the blurb, realised it was set in WWII and immediately added it to a list of absolute must-buys.

What I Thought
For some reason it took me a while to get round to reading Code Name Verity, but when I did I was instantly sucked into a much darker world than I expected. The first chapter is written by 'Verity', who the reader soon learns is a British spy who has been captured by the Gestapo in German-occupied France. Tortured and ill-treated to the point of inhumanity, she has struck a deal with her captors to write down all she knows about the British war effort. She knows cooperation is the easy way out, but she's willing to do so to gain an extra two weeks, in spite of the certainty that they will shoot her at the end of it.

To begin with, she writes about her best friend, Maddie, who trained as a pilot despite women not being allowed to fly as part of the war effort. If not for the war, their paths would never have crossed - Verity (or Lady Julia Lindsay McKenzie Wallace Beaufort-Stuart, as we discover her real name is) is from a rich Scottish family, and Maddie is a working-class Stockport girl. It was easy to get lost in Maddie's story, told in such striking detail, but the chapters are interspersed with heartbreaking descriptions of Verity's life in prison, the harsh conditions she lives in and the precarious deal she has made. She narrates the story of her friendship with Maddie - or rather Maddie's friendship with her, as she talks about them both in the third person -  up until the point when Julie bails out of a crashing plane over France, flown by Maddie. Her narration ends with the words 'I have told the truth', repeated over and over again.

The second part, 'Kittyhawk', is told from Maddie's point of view, picking up where Julie left off. Her voice is so different from Julie's, as she despairs over whether she will ever see her best friend alive again, and it was fascinating to have the story told from two perspectives, as Maddie learns snippets about Julie's predicament and pieces together her own picture of what happened after they separated. Although Verity's account seems genuine and highly detailed, when reading Maddie's the reader realises there is so much more to the story. The two halves complement each other, true to a phrase which crops up again and again in the novel: 'we are a sensational team'.

'Code Name Verity' is one of the most authentically realistic books I've read for a long time. Julie and Maddie are vibrantly drawn characters, patriotic and courageous in the circumstances, and both with a thrill for adventure. But don't get me wrong - this book isn't lighthearted in the least, and should definitely be avoided by the squeamish. There's no scrimping on gory details, including torture methods, shootings, beheadings and fatal injuries, which all adds to the realness of a story set in German-occupied France in 1943.

If I were to have any criticism at all, it would probably be the colossal amount of information related to aeroplanes. Although essential for the story, as well as being part of the information Verity is supposed to be giving the Gestapo, I felt it was slightly overwhelming at times. As someone who doesn't know the first thing about planes, I was getting bogged down in the details. Having said that, I think without it there would be something missing from the story.

The storytelling is flawless, the characters vividly alive, the circumstances bitterly pitiful and the plotting fiendishly intricate, Code Name Verity is one of those books which had me pressing my hand over my mouth in nauseated horror one minute and crying the next. With a heartbreaking ending which left me in floods of tears, I would definitely put it up there in my top ten favourite books of all time.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥