Ingenue parachuted into a dangerous identity crisis
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