When Procrastination Pays: CODE NAME VERITY in Normandy

This is, I’m told, the British edition cover.

After setting aside Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein a couple of times (never the book’s fault), I am happy to report that I have finally gobbled its 452 pages in just three days. Code Name Verity·has been at the top of my to-read list ever since I read about it here, but in the end, my procrastination paid off last week since my initial eagerness was enhanced by the perfect reading environment: a·beach house on the Normandy Coast with a (distant) view of Britain and heaps of WWII history all around us.

The quick scoop: Code Name Verity takes us into WWII Britain and France as experienced and described by two plucky and brilliant young women, Maddie (the pilot) and Julie (the intelligence agent). War brings them together, and their friendship leads them to make great sacrifices as they venture into enemy territory (occupied France) together. The tone is chipper and the pace is quick once we get oriented. At first the reader doesn’t exactly know who is who or who is where, and that’s part of the fun. Once we do know some of the answers, the pages of the book are fairly packed with suspense and they simply fly.

Tricky Territory:·I was a bit disoriented by the first-person narration at first. Ostensibly it’s the confession being written by a captured British agent, but it begins instead to tell the story of two girls’ friendship. I admit that I was rolling my eyes a bit and thinking that the frame story felt very unnatural. But down the road we realize that there’s a reason for this artifice: Julie (the first narrator) is putting on a fantastic performance with this confession that is also riddled with critical information. We realize this even before we switch to Maddie’s POV, but it’s with Maddie that all the pieces begin to fall stunningly into place via lots of tricky plotting that almost never feels forced

Voice: We get both women’s voices, and they are quite distinct, but I have to confess that I especially loved Julie’s. Especially her ALL CAPS rants about NOT BEING ENGLISH (she’s Scottish) and–less playful–the way she manages to describe tortures inflicted on her while still being weirdly funny. Maddie, whose part comes second, has this tendency to burst into tears at the worst moments that I loved, and her straightforward sweetness (no saccharine, though, despite the wartime setting) is an excellent foil for Julie’s subtlety.

Friendship (and the absence of romance): There are lots of books with wartime settings that are full of urgent romances, but here friendship and meaningful work are what keep these two women going. An inevitable question for some readers of Code Name Verity is if the love between Julie and Maddie is just friend love or love love. There are a couple of scenes that are a touch ambiguous, and if you wanted to see theirs as an undeclared same-sex attraction, I suppose you could. But you could also say the same thing for a few bits between Maddie and Julie’s brother.

Really, though, insisting that every deep connection resolve itself into romance would go against one of the themes of the book, which is that certain friendships can change your life as suddenly and completely as any romance.

Cool History Stuff: I absolutely DON’T read fiction to learn history, but it’s cool to brush up against not just period-related facts but also situations you hadn’t considered. For example, one of the problems Maddie faces is a horny bastard in the French Resistance cell that hides her. Because she’s in hiding, she is pretty much at his mercy, which is a situation I never considered, although it would be real for many people in wartime seclusion, not just those who were in prison.

Another bit that doesn’t often get discussed in adventure stories: what about menstruation in prison? In Code Name Verity, Julie has a·heavily coded conversation with a radio interviewer, who also happens to be another woman. The interviewer asks Julie things like,·“Can I send you towels?,”·”You’re not–?,” and·”You haven’t been–?” Then we get this:·

I’m sure Engel [the guard/translator] was able to fill in the blanks:

–Can I send you (sanitary) towels?

–No thanks, I’ve stopped (bleeding).

–You’re not (pregnant)? You haven’t been (raped)?

I also love how Julie has to write on all kinds of random pages (paper shortage), including a Jewish doctor’s prescription pad, which she uses–incidentally–to make jokey prescriptions for one of her guards (several good shaggings prescribed). ·

Packaging: Keeping in mind that the author usually has VERY LITTLE (if any) say in the jacket copy, I found the description on the back a bit misleading because it gives little indication that we’ll actually get equal amounts of narration from both women. Ditto for the cover, which only shows the silhouette of one woman. And the title, which refers only to Julie’s code name even though Maddie is just as important. Maybe in my mind I’ll think of it as Verity and Kittyhawk. But I admit that “Code Name Verity” has a lovely ring to it.

Highly recommended for readers who like a strong female lead, anyone interested in WWII, those who like a kick of page-turning adventure, and budding engineers/techie types. Code Name Verity is a perfect crossover novel with as much adult appeal as teen appeal.


 

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