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I kept seeing people recommending this Second World War novel, about a British agent (Scottish!) and her English pilot in occupied France. Eventually, I buckled to the power of suggestion and came by a copy. Then it sat on my 'to read' shelf for ages without quite managing to pull me in. Yesterday, I finally got around to it - and got sucked in with a sort of loud SCHLOOP noise like something going horribly wrong with plumbing. I read the whole thing pretty much at one sitting.

The premise is that it's 1943, and the agent, Queenie, has been captured. The Gestapo have been torturing her (rather more torture description than I prefer to read in general, but I never felt that it tipped over into being gratuitous or self-indulgent) - and she's writing down everything she knows about the British War Effort.

For some reason, she is writing it in the form of a story told from the point of view of the female pilot who flew her to France. Queenie is an aristocratic scion of an old Scottish family, the pilot is heir to modest wealth from the new motor cycle industry, and the story is really about how they have become friends.

I hit the first 'hang on, that's not right' thing on page 10, and I confess that I did think 'bloody American writers' at first, because it seemed like a failure in the local 'tone' research. But I went on reading, and kept hitting 'hang on, that's not right' - and it quickly became clear that in fact Queenie was lying. She was telling a story peppered with lies, with just enough local description to give it an air of vague likelihood to someone not English.

I thought this was brilliant! What a wonderful game! So I went on reading, absolutely captured by the premise - on the one hand, it was an entertainingly told story, and on the other hand, clearly there was a whopping great complicated lie happening, and I was trying to spot it. Trying to work out if it was possible to spot the real story behind the lie, and desperately cudgelling my brain for half-forgotten names of airfields and so on. Compelling stuff. Bit like a whodunnit.

Then I got to the end of the half of the book that is Queenie's Scheherazade story for the Gestapo - and there is a lovely spice added by the fact that the Gestapo officer in charge calls her Scheherazade, and is clearly aware that she is tale-telling to spin out her own life. He knows what is going on, or some of it - but how much? Has he caught the details I caught? And there are faint flickers that the guard, Engel might not be all she seems either...

At that point, you will remember, the story swaps to being told by Maddie, the pilot, who is undercover and being looked after by the Resistance (I did get faint echos of 'Allo, 'Allo' at this point, but I tried really hard to ignore them, because the book seemed too good to allow the ghost of Herr Flick to intrude, although I admit I probably did imagine the Gestapo woman guard Engel as Helga.)

Anyway, at this point I started to get a little confused. Because Maddie, who is now telling the tale - is NOT supposed to be lying. Maddie is telling the straight truth about her situation. And yet, Maddie also uses the names of airfields that never existed, that are clearly fabrications. Is Maddie lying too? Is this another twist? I read on fervently, trying to solve the puzzle. Surely Maddie can't possibly *really* be writing down all this highly confidential material in plaintext while still living under cover with people who would all die if her diary was found? Careless talk costs lives, she knows that, and yet, here she is naming names, giving places, times, descriptions of people. There must be something else going on!

And then I got to the end of the book and the Resistance tried to rescue Queenie, failed, and Maddie had to shoot Queenie to save her from a terrible fate as a human experiment subject in a concentration camp. (They did blow up the Gestapo headquarters, which was satisfying). And it turned out there was no great puzzle to solve after all: although I was right that Queenie had been lying in her story, the author had just made up the airfield names as 'an easy way to avoid historical incongruity' according to her afterword.

And there is no explanation at all about why Maddie, who generally seems a sensible and competent woman, would be so utterly irresponsible and pigheadedly stupid as to keep a written diary full of helpful details that would certainly condemn not only herself, but her best friend and her brother and all the people trying to help her if it were found. That seemed very out of character.

So for most of the book, I think I was actually reading a book that was not entirely the book the author wrote.

It was a bloody good book though.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
12th Jul, 2013 11:58 (UTC)
What were the 'hang on, that's not right' things, besides the names of airfields (and frankly I'm impressed that you know the names of airfields)?
12th Jul, 2013 12:43 (UTC)
Oh, now I wish I'd recorded more detail, my memory is fading already...

The thing I remember tripping over that made me think 'hey, this *has* to be a lie* was the name of the town 'Illsmere Port' - that's a really distinctive sounding name, and I'm fairly sure it doesn't exist. It is based on the real place name 'Ellesmere Port' ( I drove through there every day for 5 years!), and it seemed obvious enough that I thought, OK, that has to be a lie (not sure if this was deliberate, but I noticed that if you say 'Ellesmere' in a cod-Prussian accent it sounds like 'Illsmere').

Plus the description of Stockport - it fits the map, more or less but... it sounded like she was exaggerating the size and proximity of the Pennines so that any bomb raid would go too far East and miss the town. And then once I started looking for lies, I realised that there was no usable military detail at all in Queenie's story. Lots of personal detail, but the 'what happened where when' stuff is very vague.

But the airfield names - I dunno. If the author had gone for completely fictional ones, I expect I would have been fooled - I have never studied WWII. But I think the names have enough resonance, and are linked enough to their place in the broader history of the island, that there's a jarring factor, even though I couldn't sit down and write a list of them.

It's like - someone tells me a story full of Athir PenGriffon and his wife Jennifer and the castle of Camlonia, I'm going to immediately spot the reference!
13th Jul, 2013 15:09 (UTC)
Ohhhh, I see - that kind of not-quite-rightness can be maddening. At least you had the amusement of reading another explanation into it!
14th Jul, 2013 06:44 (UTC)
Well, I hope I could have risen above it and still enjoyed the story if I'd realised it was just a narrative device, but believing it to be part of the mechanism of the story definitely added a spice!

I try not to get too discombobulated by historical hiccups that I notice, as a general principle - because after all, probably there are lots of hiccups I don't notice, not being from 1942, and in a period that I've not researched thoroughly, I think it's important to keep in mind that very likely I am wrong and not the author anyway!

I did wish that she'd done something slightly different with Maddie's part of the story though - that's not a history thing, it's a character thing. It makes Maddie look like SUCH an idiot to be writing everything down and not even using code names, while *sleeping in a Gestapo member's bedroom!* and really, I don't see why that bit couldn't have been written as a retrospective when she was back in Britain.

I was really expecting Maddie to be caught and her diary to be the downfall of the whole Resistance network, and although it was a relief when this didn't happen, it still felt a bit ... odd.
14th Jul, 2013 17:48 (UTC)
Heh. When reading epistolary fiction I usually shut up the part of my brain that says "nobody writes letters or diaries like this," but with this book, the circumstances of Queenie's writing are so important it does seem a letdown that Maddie's bit is poorly justified. To be honest, I think I did mentally edit/fanwank that never mind, she wrote it afterwards to accompany Queenie's manuscript. Gah, I think I'm going to go reread it now.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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