Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

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 and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Harrowing and beautifully written, Elizabeth Wein creates a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other. Code Name Verity is an outstanding novel that will stick with you long after the last page.
This book was not what I expected. Now, for some people, that's a good thing; for some, that's a bad thing. For me, it was a bit of both, but even when it was bad, it was bad in the best way possible.

I seem to be picking entangled books lately, because once again I find myself sitting here unsure of what to say first or even of what I can say at all. Have you ever tried to untangle a really gnarly knot? It all loops this way and that, and you can't tell what's connected to what. Code Name Verity isn't complicated, per se, but there are so many little threads that loop and curl around each other that I'm not sure which is safe to tug on.

The book opens with a quote from the SOE Secret Operations Manual (that is, a secret spy book) - "Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs."

Oh my gosh, how I clung to that quote. I had to. Thanks to the synopsis, I knew Verity was going to write a confession. I just didn't expect the confessing to start on the first freaking page. Eleven sets of top-secret wireless codes. She gave up ELEVEN SETS of top-secret wireless codes, and we find this out within the first few pages.

Elizabeth Wein is brilliant. I was so ticked off at our narrator, our Verity. I didn't want to hear her whine about how she didn't like being strapped up in her underwear or how cold she was or how hungry she was, because I was so incensed. I wanted to scream at her that she was a SPY, dagnabit! I was supposed to root for this collaborateur, this Scot that would make freedom-loving William Wallace flush with shame?

And because of that, I was hooked without even realizing it. I wanted this sniveling girl spy to prove herself to me.

So I read her confession with tight, scrutinizing eyes. She wrote about her pilot friend Maddie, about her friend's life, how she became obsessed with airplanes, how they met. Mundane things, with valuable information such as airplane types and airfield locations sprinkled throughout.

Sounds a bit boring, right? But it wasn't. Because in among the mundane things are details. Details about Verity and Maddie and their friendship. Details about Verity's captors - Thibaut, Engel, and the foreboding SS-Hauptsturmfurher von Linden. Details about how Verity arrived in her prison and what she had to endure to be broken into the role of Nazi snitch.

And in those details, I started to root for her, even though I still didn't trust her. I clung to the opening quote, hoping against hope that she wasn't aiding, but instead passively resisting. You see, Verity has this voice. She's a passionate, pugilistic Scotswoman, and her heart bleeds through every word. I would walk away to get a drink or have dinner or go to work and her voice would be in my head, whispering her truths.

How can you ever hope to remain unattached to someone who has set herself up so comfortably inside your own mind?

There are so many things that I can't tell you about this book. Unlike Verity, who was bound at the ankles to a chair and forced to write, I found myself bound at the hands and unable to say what I wish.

I loved Verity, her voice, her passion. I loved that no one came away appearing one-dimensional or wholly good/bad. The Nazis were given human edges (I know, they're evil, but they WERE human beings), the Allies weren't sainted beings with halos for hats. I love Wein's the use of the Peter Pan tale - I had forgotten how much affection I had for Mrs. Darling as a kid.

But mostly, I love that Wein chose to focus solely on Maddie and Verity's friendship. There was no intrusive and unnecessary romance (though I firmly choose to hope that there's a little something-something developing between two of the characters), no distracting inter-personal drama. In really tight friendships, it's incredibly hard to pinpoint when the relationship passed from friends to soulmates, and that's how it is with Verity and Maddie. It's simply a no-holds-barred, head-over-heels, passionately loyal, iron-clad agape friendship between two girls willing to give their lives to save each other.

And that's the honest-to-goodness truth.

Points Added For: Plot structure (just thinking about the work it must've taken to organize everything makes my head ache), plausibility (Maddie and Verity's roles are historically accurate!), unbearable tension, terrific character voices, Mrs. Darling leaving the windows open, Jamie, a character named "Bloody Machiavellian British Intelligence Officer", killer twists, an ultimately satisfying ending, the fact that it seems more New Adult than Young Adult (yes, I'm a bit giddy over that).

Points Subtracted For: Slow parts (especially in the beginning), making me cry, making me want to learn German (Spanish has first dibs, dagnabit!).

Good For Fans Of: Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (different war, but Wein has some fantastic descriptions, and neither author shies away from the costs of war; also, Maddie/Verity = Diana/Anne), Terrier by Tamora Pierce (same twisty epistolary style), The Young Underground series by Robert Elmer, WW2, espionage, Thelma+Louise/Frodo+Sam-type friendships.

Notes For Parents: Torture details (pins under fingernails, beheadings, immolations, etc.), molestation, unsettling deaths, heavy language (d's, s's, h's, b's, sob's, and a smattering of f-bombs). [Note: The language is understandable given the circumstances, but it's much heavier than anything I've reviewed, excepting Before I Fall].

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