Last year, this novel by Elizabeth Wein was all over the internet, landing on many bloggers’ top 10 lists of the year. And most of the reviews I read said that to say much about it would be spoilery. Mostly, I kept hearing about unreliable narrators, spies, female friendship, secrets, twists, and big questions about the nature of truth. (See, for example, the reviews by Ana, Jenny, and Amy.) This is all pretty much like catnip to me, so of course I wanted to read it. And talk of twists always makes me want to know what the twist is, as long as it’s not a stupid one thrown in at the end for the sake of twistiness. I hate those. This book is less twisty than I expected, but the twists aren’t gimmicks. They’re essential to the story.
Anyway, the book is set during World War II, and it opens with a Scottish woman whose name we do not know (we later learn her code name is Verity) writing a confession to her Nazi interrogators. “I am a coward,” she writes. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.” Now, fearing torture and death, she buys herself a little more time by writing down everything she knows about the British war effort—location of airfields, types of aircraft, anything.
I’m just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you to do enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. After I write this confession, if you don’t shoot me and I ever make it home, I’ll be tried and shot as a collaborator anyway. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and this is the easy one, the obvious one.
Her confession takes the form of a story, largely about her best friend Maddie, the pilot who brought her to France. She’s already been shown a photograph of Maddie’s body, burned to a cinder when her plane crashed after Verity parachuted out. It is through Maddie that Verity learned what little she knows about air fields and planes, and she pores through her memory, dredging up details as she crafts this memorial to the friend she lost.
Here’s where I have to admit that as much as I liked Verity’s vivid storytelling, I had some problems with the conceit here. I could accept the idea that her inquisitors let her confess in this rambling way—even if it’s not believable, it’s a premise you have to accept for the story to work, so I chose to accept it. But there were a lot of details she shared about Maddie that I couldn’t accept that she would know. Yes, close friends tell each other “everything,” but not literally everything, not to this degree. It wasn’t convincing. (Spoiler: I assumed that the level of detail was intentional, a clue to what was really going on. Turns out, it wasn’t, which is too bad, although as twists go, that would have been an obvious one.)
Despite my skepticism about Verity’s story, I did like reading about her and Maddie’s war work. Although they’re neither of them perfect at their jobs, I found them much more convincing than the main character in Simon Mawer’s Trapeze, a book that covers similar ground. I was also glad to read a book that focused on the war work and on female friendship without needing to bring romance into it. (The main character’s obsession with romance was a major failing of Trapeze.) At one point, Verity notes how much finding your best friend is like falling in love. These two women are fiercely loyal to one another, and their friendship is the emotional core of the book. Yet I found that I wanted to see that process of falling in love. It takes place over the course of a bike ride, and we’re there for that, and it’s lovely. But we don’t see the intimacy and closeness develop. Of course, Verity is writing to the Germans, and she’s only going to reveal so much, but I was left feeling that I had to take their closeness on trust, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that.
Once the book winds around to its conclusion, a lot of the readers’ assumptions have been overturned. And here, for me, is where the book gets interesting. My problems with the narrative itself remain, but I was left thinking about what it means to say that a story is true. In what sense is something true? Is getting all the details right essential to truth? Can one tell the truth in the midst of telling a lie? What about lies of omission? How does the expectation of the audience come into play? I liked the way truth and falsehood are woven together in the story. Wein does well at planting bits of information that don’t seem significant until much later, and she lets Verity’s selectiveness about the truth keep readers in the dark about a few things without it seeming too much like cheating. Here’s where the otherwise problematic conceit serves the story especially well.
This book didn’t quite live up to my expectations, I’m sorry to say, but it is a good book. It’s a fine example of how complex and well-written books in the Young Adult section of the library can be. Honestly, this is one of those books that makes me wonder how books get assigned to one category or another. But that’s a whole other conversation and one that doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m happy to shop for books in whatever section of the library or bookstore has the kinds of books I like, and I find that there are few areas where I can’t find something I’ll enjoy. It just saddens me to think that people miss out because they aren’t willing to explore beyond the boundaries deemed appropriate for them.