The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Simon Mawer

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Simon Mawer is one of those mid-list UK authors who manages to escape my attention and then, suddenly, arrives with a bang. The Glass Room (2009) was his 10th book but KfC’s first and it struck a very responsive chord. The central “character” is a stunning home, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic, and is used by the author as a setting to explore the continually-evolving political tensions of the 20th century in that particular area of Europe: a fledgling post-Empire nation, overtaken by Nazi invasion, replaced by Soviet domination, and finally struggling into the post-Soviet future.

Mawer had a reputation as a readable plot-driven novelist, but I was not the only one who thought The Glass Room represented a major step forward for the author. The novel made the Booker shortlist and was the favorite of many who read it — alas, when it came to the final selection, The Glass Room had no chance against the overwhelming favorite, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but it remains one of my favorite reads since starting this blog.

So 2012 offered some promise for me: Mantel has published a second Cromwell volume, Bring Up The Bodies (to be reviewed here soon, I promise), and Mawer is back on the bookstore shelves with this entry.

Like The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky returns to WWII Europe, but it is more tightly contained than the previous novel. The story this time centres on the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), one of those shadowy agencies that sent covert operators into France between May 1941 and September 1944 to support the Resistance Forces. Mawer slices the story even further: 39 of the SOE operatives were women and his central character, Marian Sutro, is one of them.

The author introduces her to the reader in a prologue-like chapter (titled “Trapeze”) on her way to her mission in France:

She’s sitting the fuselage, trussed like a piece of baggage, battered by noise. Half an hour earlier they manhandled her up through the door because she was too encumbered with her parachute to climb the ladder unassisted; now she is just there, with the sound drumming on her ears, and the inadequate light and the hard metal and packages all around her.

Marian is one of those characters who will be familiar to any reader who has come across fiction concerning links between the UK and the French Resistance. She’s a Brit, but her background is continental — her father was a diplomat involved with the League of Nations so she has spent substantial time as a youth in both Switzerland and Paris. One of the products of that is fluency in French, which has drawn the attention of the British spymasters.

She is already in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) when she receives the summons to come to London for an interview with one Potter, “an undistinguished-looking man, the kind that her father called a bank-manager type”:

His letter had asked her not to come in uniform. She’d thought that strange at the time, even slightly peculiar. Why not in uniform, when the whole damn world was in uniform? So she’d chosen something plain and businesslike — a navy skirt and jacket with a white blouse, and the only decent pair of shoes she had managed to bring from Geneva. She’d tried to avoid using them too much in the last couple of years. They were too precious. And silk stockings, she wore silk stockings. Her last pair.

That reference to her experience with pre-war French style will become even more important as the novel unfolds. Once Marian has been accepted and heads into intensive rounds of training to serve as a “courier” for a Resistance cell in rural southwest France, it becomes apparent that the authorities’ real interest in her is quite something else. Her youthful experience in France meant she had an acquaintance (a budding love affair actually) with Clement Pelletier, a French nuclear phsyicist who is still working in Paris.

Marian’s brother, Ned, is also a physicist. As the war unfolds, both sides are working on developing the atomic bomb and the uncertain state on the continent has involved substantial relocation of the scientists who are working on the cutting edge of the new prospect of splitting the atom. The Brits very much want Pelletier’s expertise and they need an agent to persuade him to flee from Paris to England.

The extensive training that Marian receives in how to operate undercover introduces her to a cast of characters who are also headed to France and who will become part of the plot as it unfolds. She is both smart and adept, but obviously somewhat out of her depth when it comes to the “real” mission that is seen for her — serving as a courier to a rural resistance unit is relatively easy work, but recruiting a world-class physicist, even given the love interest of a decade before, ups the stakes.

The biggest problem with The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is that we have seen this book before — as just one example, Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray is based on a remarkably similar set of premises (right down to the female Special Operations Executive female recruit with a love interest in France). And, to jump to the conclusion, Faulks succeeds in carrying it off better than Mawer does.

Mawer is a more than competent stylist, but there is a curious flatness to this novel. As Marian heads through training, assignment, arrival in France, early tasks and finally heading to Paris, there are few surprises — even the relationships that she develops seem to be devoted more to serving the plot than to establishing depth in the book. Authors who are accomplished in the spy/foreign operative genre (John le Carre comes to mind) find a way to introduce plausible, if unlikely, surprises to refresh reader interest. And the books that best succeed build interesting, complex characters who move the well-known plot into the background (think Foyle from the television series Foyle’s War, if I can be allowed a non-literary comparison). Mawer, unfortunately, simply lets the story unfold on entirely predictable lines, with a tidy conclusion to wrap it all up at the end.

Perhaps I was guilty of approaching the novel with too high expectations, but it does not live up to The Glass Room or to the comparable works from authors like le Carre or Faulks. Readable and entertaining, but not a book that will often come to mind a few months down the road I fear.

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13 Responses to “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Simon Mawer”

  1. David Says:

    I suspect that like you, Kevin, a lot of readers had high hopes for this novel in the wake of ‘The Glass Room’ (I did too), but looking through the descriptions of Mawer’s backlist – mostly described as ‘literary thrillers’ – I do wonder if it was ‘The Glass Room’ and not this one that is the odd one out.
    I liked ‘The Glass Room’ well enough but it was my least favourite of the 2009 shortlist – it felt like it was trying to hard to be “literary” and didn’t have much life in it whereas ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ reads more like an author working within his comfort zone and having a bit of fun. I agree with you that there is nothing particularly new here and the whole thing feels a bit commercial and doesn’t have much depth, but for all that I much preferred this one as a reading experience and have bought one of Mawer’s earlier books as a result (‘A Jealous God’). I certainly don’t see this as a Booker contender, but I think it does what it sets out to do very well.
    Marian irritated me slightly in how terrible she is at following orders – told not to tell anyone anything about her training she promptly spills all to her brother! But I thought Mawer was quite good on the psychological aspects of her assuming other personalities.

    One thing that puzzled me: on page 58, Marian’s father is struggling with a clue in The Times crossword: “Forges prose, 9″. It’s a very simple clue so the reader is obviously supposed to solve it, and the answer becomes very relevant later on, but there is no explanation given for this earlier mention – I was expecting some sort of big revelation (that maybe Marian’s father knew more than he was letting on and was being sent coded messages by the SOE) but never got one. Unless I missed something I thought it was an odd thing to leave dangling.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound like David is right, and it’s The Glass Room that’s the departure. Perhaps many of his fans didn’t like that as much as his usual work?

    I tend to reach for Alan Furst for this sort of thriller, or of course Le Carre who despite his problems writing convincing female characters has a great many strengths to compensate for that particular weakness (and tends thankfully to have male character driven books anyway, which makes it less of an issue).

    A solid beach or Christmas novel from the sound of it, and one hs existing fans will likely enjoy, but definitely not one for me. The very fact it’s yet another novel about the SOE frankly diminishes my interest. That story feels overtold, in fiction at any rate.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David, Max: It does occur to me that this has more in common with The Glass Room in terms of “consistency” in Mawer’s approach than I indicated in my review. Perhaps the reason I (and others) found that one more “literary” was his use of the Villa Tugendhat as the device to carry his action — a purpose served by the SOE model that I found somewhat tired in this book. The architecture link speaks much more to my interests than the spy program so it is no surprise that I found The Glass Room a better book. I know some other readers who found it shallow — I’d admit that the Villa Tugendhat was enough to let me overlook some obvious weaknesses.

    Given that I’ve only read those two, I’m hardly qualified to reach a conclusion about the overall nature of his work but I would lean to thinking that this novel is probably more typical. He is one of those British authors who relocated to Italy some years ago (like Barry Unsworth and Tim Parks) and his catalogue shows a couple of works set there — I might be inclined to try one of those if I go into his back catalogue.

    And David I do North American crosswords not cryptics so “forges prose, 9″ does not have an obvious answer to me (or anyone else who doesn’t do cryptics). I’ll admit I was expecting a reveal later on — so perhaps you could help me (and other non-cryptic solvers) out with the answer.

    • David Says:

      Ah, sorry, Kevin – the answer (I assume) is WORDSMITH which is also the codename of Marian’s circuit.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Yes, obvious now even to a non-cryptic solver. And had I made the connection and solved the clue as a reader, I also would have expected Mawer to make more use of it, i.e. connecting Marian’s father into the SOE angle of the plot. Since he pretty obviously isn’t, the crossword reference seems more a pointless authorly diversion than anything else.

  4. Lee Monks Says:

    ‘Readable and entertaining, but not a book that will often come to mind a few months down the road I fear.’

    Perhaps this would’ve done well in last year’s Booker then? It sounds like a punt at hitting a supermarket shelf audience.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I’d have put it in the top half of last year’s Booker list — the problem with so many of them was that the execution was so bad even if the central idea had some promise. Mawer has no issues on that front; I’d just like to see him stretch himself more because he is quite capable of doing it. Or at least I think he did with The Glass Room.

    My cheapish put down summary would be “written with a movie deal in mind”. The plot elements offer a number of attractive settings (London, Oxford, Scotland, rural France, Paris) and enough action that good actors could establish more interesting characters than the book itself does. I don’t know Mawer well enough to know whether previous novels have been turned into films.

  6. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I’ve only read The Fall by Simon Mawer. This was a unremarkable novel with some exciting bits on rock climbing combined with a rather unconvincing psychological back story. I read it, I forgot it. I was rather surprised by the praise that The Glass Room attracted as I also thought that Mawer was ` a competent stylist……. with a curious flatness…..’ if I can paraphrase your shrewd review. I would probably bracket Mawer’s work alongside Faulks and the recent work of William Boyd. Here are three perfectly good writers who seem to be aiming at the supermarket market by producing readable but highly predictable 2WW thrillers. I don’t want to crticise them for wanting to earn a living but it’s rather disappointing that all three seem to be mining a narrow seam of spy lit destined for the `beach read’ category.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I think your comparison with Faulks and Boyd (although I have read only one of his) is valid — and tend to agree with the implications that you draw from it. Where I think The Glass Room broke from that was that it used the Villa Tugendhat to capture the changes that took place throughout the century. That one and this one are the only Mawer’s that I have read — I’m not inclined to explore the back catalogue.

  8. Karyn Says:

    “The Glass Room” which you kindly and wisely recommended to me, is one of my favourite books in recent years, if not ever. A very hard act to follow. Having read this review, I am choosing rather some of your other recent strong recommendations. I always appreciate your frank assessment. I have never disagreed with your astute analysis. Many thanks.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Karyn: This was certainly not as good as The Glass Room for me. The woman spy in France angle has been done a lot and, for my tastes, done better. Having said that, the new Ian McEwan arrived last week and it looks to have the same theme — we shall see.

  10. Suzy Says:

    The ‘curiously flat style’ reminded me more of a John Buchan novel than of Sebastian Faulks, and I wonder if the prose was not dated on purpose? For me, it added to the novel.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Suzy: I agree that it gives the novel a distinctive tone — unfortunately for me it also served to distance the characters in a way that made it less engaging.

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