In­genue parachuted into a dan­ger­ous iden­tity cri­sis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jen­nifer Levasseur

Binet is above all play­ful, though. The book is struc­tured in short chap­ters, which in­clude quo­ta­tions, po­etry and, for one long stretch, big gobs of Goebbels’s in­suf­fer­able di­aries.

In the sec­ond half, Binet puts his au­tho­rial intrusions on mute, as his­tory moves for­ward and the plot of the as­sas­si­na­tion gains mo­men­tum.

Here he proves him­self a great writer of sus­pense, ef­fec­tively ratch­et­ing up the tension as Gab­cik and Ku­bis make their way through the streets of Prague as Hey­drich lies on his deathbed (how strange in read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion that a reader’s ig­no­rance can some­times be re­warded; his­tory as the ul­ti­mate spoiler).

The reader who may not take to the book will be the one who does not want to spend time in Binet’s com­pany. Fans of tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal fic­tion may feel threat­ened by the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on show.

But Binet shows a con­ven­tional side too: he’s dog­matic in his de­vo­tion to the facts, openly trash-talk­ing nov­els and films that take lib­er­ties with the truth.

He spends pages crit­i­cis­ing just the opening para­graph of Alan Burgess’s 1960 novel Seven Men at Day­break for get­ting the colour of Hey­drich’s Mercedes in­cor­rect. (It was black ac­cord­ing to Binet, not dark green.)

The grav­ity of the events Binet de­scribes — the great­est crimes of the 20th cen­tury — may not sit eas­ily with the hu­mor­ous meta­crit­i­cal el­e­ments of the novel.

But HHhH — how just typ­ing that ti­tle echoes Robert Bolano’s 2666, an­other novel that strug­gled in­ter­nally with the way to tell the story of real-life mass mur­ders — is at its best when it forces the tension be­tween the two, when Binet ar­gues be­tween the ethics and the art, and the novel be­comes di­a­logic in the ex­treme.

There are traces here of Ge­off Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which the au­thor writes about his fail­ure to com­plete (or even be­gin work on) a bi­og­ra­phy of D. H. Lawrence, but in do­ing so cre­ates the per­fect homage to Lawrence.

Binet may not have cre­ated the most ex­haus­tive, ex­act source on Hey­drich but he has cap­tured the anx­i­ety that is, or should be, felt, by writ­ers of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion on each and ev­ery page.

There is a cu­ri­ous end­note to this novel, which can­not be lo­cated in the book it­self. Binet’s French pub­lisher Gras­set deleted a sig­nif­i­cant part of his orig­i­nal man­u­script, in which the young au­thor crit­i­cised Jonathan Lit­tell’s The Kindly Ones, which when pub­lished in 2006 sent Binet into a spin be­cause he was wor­ried what the pub­li­ca­tion of a book con­cerned with some of the same events and char­ac­ters would mean for his own work. Th­ese ex­cised pages have been trans­lated into English and pub­lished on en­ter­pris­ing Amer­i­can lit­er­ary web­site The Mil­lions, and form a mini-nar­ra­tive in them­selves: a fever­ish, sus­tained rant against Lit­tell’s ap­proach.

It’s un­der­stand­able that a pub­lisher would feel con­cerned about at­tack­ing such a well­re­ceived and con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous book, but Binet’s hal­lu­ci­na­tory and ob­ses­sive notes on Lit­tell’s lauded novel are crit­i­cisms worth air­ing. It would be won­der­ful to see them re­stored in their right­ful place. Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer and the host of The Reread­ers pod­cast.

MAR­IAN Sutro is a woman com­pli­cated. Ev­ery fi­bre of her be­ing pounds against an al­ter­na­tive, op­pos­ing re­al­ity. She is French; she is English. She is beloved; she is a pawn.

Strict re­li­gious school­ing has em­bed­ded a fear and dis­gust of her sex­u­al­ity, but she must play both the in­genue and the femme fa­tale with­out a clear un­der­stand­ing of what role she must em­body at which time. She calls her­self Mar­ian, Mar­i­anne, Anne-Marie, Alice, Lau­rence.

In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, a beau­ti­ful young woman barely out of school and with no life ex­pe­ri­ence must ac­cept the mis­sion from a name­less se­cret or­gan­i­sa­tion: use your hy­brid na­ture to aid the English war ef­fort in oc­cu­pied France. Your chances of sur­vival: 50-50.

Bri­tish au­thor Si­mon Mawer fol­lows up his 2009 Man Booker Prize short­listed novel The Glass Room with the jour­ney of an un­sus­pect­ing Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force mem­ber thrust into deadly covert op­er­a­tions. Though Mar­ian’s su­pe­ri­ors en­cour­age her to be­lieve her lan­guage skills and in­tel­li­gence have marked her for train­ing, she comes to dis­cover that the real tar­get may be her girl­hood beau, a French physi­cist toil­ing un­der Ger­man sur­veil­lance in Paris. The ques­tion of how au­thor­i­ties dis­cov­ered her un­ful­filled, se­cret re­la­tion­ship with this older man pro­pels Mar­ian to re­assess ev­ery­one she thinks she knows and trusts.

Based loosely on some of the ex­ploits of Anne-Marie Walters, one of the women re­cruited into the French sec­tion of the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive — which em­ployed 39 women in the field from 1941 to 1944 — The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ex­plores a young woman’s com­ing of age in a world where noth­ing makes sense, no one is who she claims, even the old­est friends can­not be trusted, and some­times strangers prove more loyal than fam­ily.

Tighter, more fo­cused and in­ti­mate than The Glass House, Mawer’s new novel com­bines his nat­u­ral, seem­ingly ef­fort­less sto­ry­telling with nu­anced psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight. Through Mar­ian’s trans­for­ma­tion from English school­girl into a va­ri­ety of French women, she be­gins to lose her hold on who she is or who she wants to be­come. She un­cov­ers ex­cite­ment and fear that she never an­tic­i­pated, as well as sex­ual free­dom, when she em­bod­ies other voices, other iden­ti­ties.

Un­sure of ev­ery­thing, from her ‘‘ du­bi­ous, hy­brid An­glo-French­ness’’ to with­draw­ing con­tact from her fam­ily, Mar­ian re­mains caught be­tween dan­ger­ous as­sign­ments and reignit­ing her un­sat­is­fied ro­mance with Cle­ment, now mar­ried and of in­ter­est to the group of Al­lied physi­cists work­ing to dis­cover an ex­plo­sive method to end the war un­equiv­o­cally.

Riv­et­ing in its ex­am­i­na­tion of how war can am­plify moral, eth­i­cal and per­sonal crises, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a wel­come ad­di­tion to the seem­ing glut of nov­els fo­cused on World War II, this one adding in a mean­ing­ful way to the lit­er­a­ture of women who risked their lives for the scant pos­si­bil­ity that their ef­forts might re­duce war ca­su­al­ties and shorten the world con­flict.

Part love story, part es­pi­onage drama, part el­e­gant psy­cho­log­i­cal study (with sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tions ac­ces­si­ble but not sim­pli­fied), Mawer’s new novel does not con­tain the same scope as The Glass Room, but its sim­ple, mov­ing story of a girl on the cusp of her own iden­tity — while the world shat­ters around her — is a tri­umph.

While Mawer’s lib­eral use of French phrases may frus­trate some read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with the lan­guage, he is care­ful to trans­late, or at least make ob­vi­ous, ones that have a strong in­flu­ence on the plot.

Mawer sel­dom mis­fires in his de­scrip­tions of Mar­ian’s in­ner life and her dra­matic ex­ploits. In one such rare ex­am­ple, he makes a ubiq­ui­tous French cheese ref­er­ence: ‘‘ The city is as rid­dled with spies as a Ro­que­fort cheese with mold.’’ More in keep­ing with his el­e­gant style, Mawer de­scribes a sup­ply drop: ‘‘ And the para­chutes ap­pear, sud­den ce­les­tial globes emerg­ing from it like eggs from the belly of a great fish, eggs that float in a stream on the tide of night, set­tling to­wards the earth where they might hatch out their off­spring.’’

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on the ways in which peo­ple are forced — or force them­selves — to change, of who they are willing to be­come and for whom. It ce­ments Mawer’s place as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant English novelists at work today.

Jen­nifer Levasseur is a book­seller and critic.

Hitler’s man in Prague, Rein­hard Hey­drich, on his ar­rival in the city

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.