Monday, 2 February 2015

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a YA novel set during World War II. I have previously read and reviewed Rose Under Fire, which is a companion novel — I want to say set in the same world, but that sounds silly when talking about a real world setting — with a small number of cross-over characters set a bit later in the war.
Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.

When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?
After reading Rose Under Fire, I was expecting Code Name Verity to be as relentlessly depressing, but it wasn't. I mean, it wasn't exactly a cheery novel, but there was some black humour to it and less horror on the page. I suspect the take-away message from that is that concentration camps, featuring in Rose Under Fire, are basically the most depressing thing ever.

So if Code Name Verity isn't about a concentration camp, what is it about? Two British girls — one a Scottish aristocratic spy, the other an English mechanic and pilot — who end up behind enemy lines in less than optimal circumstances. The story opens in the form of Verity's written confession to the Gestapo in the French city where she's been captured. Verity quickly tells us that she's traded wireless codes for better treatment from the Nazis and is now writing out a sort of "everything she knows about the British war effort" confession. Partly due to the Nazi-in-charge's indulgence, but mostly due to her own gumption, she writes her confession in the form of a story centring on her friend Maddy, who flew the plane that brought her to France. There are a few "here are the aeroplane names I can think of" bits, but for the most part it is written in a narrative style. We even get some "here is what's happening with me and the Nazi interrogators" bits at the start of most days/sections.

The opening sentence of Code Name Verity is "I AM A COWARD." for selling secrets to the Nazis for personal comforts. But if you look at the New York Times quote on the cover... well it might give you a bit of a hint about the unreliable narration. Whether or not you take the confession at face value, it still makes for a good read. But I found myself particularly intrigued as to where the story was going to go next when, at a bit past half-way, I realised Verity's retelling was catching up to the present.

The second half of the book is kind of a spoiler for the first half so I don't feel like I can say much about it. But it strongly informs the first half (from the very start, I laughed out loud when a tiny detail threw a much earlier detail into a new light) and the story doesn't make sense without the complete package. Let's just say the narration becomes rather more reliable.

I really loved this book. Although it doesn't look long, it's a bit denser than other YA books I've read recently, so I had to inhale it over three days (interspersed with other reading) but still ended up staying up to finish it. The characters are loveable (well, not the horrible Nazis, obviously, but you know what I mean) and the story is gripping. I also couldn't help thinking that it's the kind of book that lends itself perfectly to being analysed in a high school English class and would have made better reading than most of the books forced upon me in school.

I highly recommend Code Name Verity to everyone, particularly anyone with even a passing interest in World War II. The focus on female pilots — particularly British ones — is both rare and interesting. An excellent read.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Hyperion
Series: Yes. Well, collection of related stand-alone stories. First written of three so far.
Format read: Paper!
Source: Purchased from a non-Amazon-owned online book shop

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