Having to follow up a highly successful book is one of the few downsides of being a critically acclaimed novelist.
Simon Mawer's eighth novel, The Glass Room, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2009, and many felt that it should have won. That novel is immensely rich, encompassing the history of Europe before, during, and after the Second World War, culture (architecture, art) and humanity (evil, betrayal, denial, love). Its successor was bound to cause a degree of performance anxiety.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky lacks the unique selling point of its predecessor. (In The Glass Room, the action didn't follow the characters; it mostly took place within the room of the title, the glass reflecting not only light but the character and history of those who resided within.) Instead, it centres on an already explored subject: female British spies during the Second World War. Two highly respected British authors have already reaped this field: Sebastian Faulks in Charlotte Gray and William Boyd in Restless.
The plot involves Marian, a young Waaf working in the Fighter Command headquarters, who is secretly asked if she would be willing to become a resistance fighter. An affiliated government department is also interested in using her to lure a physicist she once knew from Paris to Britain.
Mawer's writing is as elegant and accomplished as it was in The Glass Room, and his research is exemplary. The rigorous field training is fascinating, not only in armed and unarmed combat but in the enigmatic activities of the secret agent: dead letter drops, cut outs, encryption, wireless telegraphing, Morse code, double transposition ciphers, lock-picking, surviving interrogation. Mawer's occupied Paris is grimly atmospheric, tense, shrunken and rendered dingy by fear and hardship. Life in the south is easier, but still fraught with risk.
There is striking imagery: "Children flock out of a school like starlings in their black smocks, laughing and chattering." Emotions are viscerally convincing: terror is "like a disease, a growth, thick and putrid, wedged behind her breastbone". Although Mawer sets his characters amid real-life ones, as in The Glass Room, their variety is more constrained than in that novel. The few non-fictional characters are physicists and politicians, with only one creative figure (Jean-Paul Sartre, amusingly unnamed). The line between co-operation and collaboration is one of the themes. As in Mary Horlock's debut The Book of Lies, set in Guernsey, those accommodating their oppressors are harshly judged by others, and sometimes unfairly.
Anna Funder's novel of Second World War resistance, All That I Am, was stunning because its main characters were based on real life ones, and its harrowing denouement was true. Mawer's in contrast, is a terse, gripping thriller that is faultlessly written but falls short of being remarkable simply because it paces already trodden ground.