Little, Brown £16.99
The Girl Who Feel From the Sky, By Simon Mawer
History repeats itself as a gripping thriller
Sunday 06 May 2012
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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove