I was in Berlin recently. I preceded my trip by reading Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and on my return read Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Yes, I could have read some Goethe or Hesse, but these were what I had on my bookshelf…
The former is a lovely wee novel. Sometime near the outset of WWII, two English women, one upper class, one working, become friends. The first becomes a spy (Queenie), the second a pilot (Maddie). Through an unlikely sequence of events, Maddie ends up flying into occupied France with Queenie, who has been tasked with an infiltration mission. Things do not go as planned and Queenie ends up a prisoner at a Gestapo-controlled Chateau. The first two-thirds of the book is “written” by Queenie, who is forced to compile a confessional diary for the cruel but human Gestapo torturer-interrogator. She tells the tale of her past and that of Maddie, their friendship and her involvement with the war, detailing, as she does, all sorts of juicy tidbits of intel for the Germans. She is a beautiful, strong, sympathetic, and oh-so-clever character surviving in truly awful circumstances.
The latter third of the novel is not quite as strong. Here the perspective switches to Maddy who is hiding out in the barn of a partisan family nearby. She makes connections with the resistance network, and ultimately, plots an escape for Queenie. Though the voice, the characters, and the setting of this section are less compelling there are still some tremendously powerful episodes. Without giving too much away, there is a wonderful frisson when we learn that Queenie is not quite as reliable a narrator as we had thought.
There’s no shortage of “Fucking Nazis!” moments* (torture and arbitrary guillotining will do that), but the Germans in the novel are in no way one-dimensional. Wein does a great job of creating nuanced characters. There are no shades of grey, no doubt that the actions of these people are abominable, but there is a fundamental recognition that people and people’s acts are two quite different things.
I very much enjoyed it.
*You know — moments where you just have to put the book down, aghast not only that people could do such things, but that an entire state existed that supported them doing so.