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.