I’m hesitant to write about Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. I went into it blind; someone recommended it, but was nonspecific about its content, and all I really knew about it came from the book cover/inside flap. Essentially, two girls meet through the Royal Air Force in war-torn England, become friends, go on adventures. WWII fiction is typically not my bag, but I do like stories about lady-friendship. In any case, going in blind led to one of the more rewarding reading experiences I’ve had (including crying on the subway), so know this going forward: I highly, highly recommend this book, but go forth in this blog at your discretion, as there will be massive spoilers to follow…
The story of Maddie and Queenie’s friendship, starts chronologically when Maddie, a pilot (who isn’t flying at the moment) and a crack navigator ends up giving flight instructions to German-speaking wireless operator Queenie as they attempt to direct a navigationally-challenged German pilot trying to land in British airspace with a broken plane. The two women conclude, rightfully so (the pilot lands safely but is hauled off for interrogation), that they make a sensational team.
That is, as I said, the chronological beginning of their friendship, but the novel itself starts with an as-yet-unnamed narrator, a captured Scottish lass being interrogated in a German prison in France. She is being allowed to document her time with the RAF so the Nazis can gather information. She’s already a traitor, having given up eleven sets of valuable code.
The story is told half in the past, detailing Maddie’s rise to being a First Officer who works for the secret Special Duties unit as the occasional night delivery pilot. She cements her friendship with Queenie during an air raid, and they remain close, occasionally bunking together when they are both stationed at the hidden Moon Squadron location. They go on adventures together and Maddie is simultaneously impressed and fearful of Queenie’s improvisational abilities, and how it lends itself to an aura of fearlessness, but also trouble.
However, Queenie isn’t fearless. The first big reveal is when head interrogator SS Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden praises the note-writer’s narrative technique to his underling Fraulein Engel, who complains that the narrator has mentioned nothing of herself, and von Linden explains that the narrator is Queenie. Fearless Queenie, the imprisoned traitor who gave up the RAF’s secrets so easily in exchange for her sweater.
The other part of Queenie’s notes is a bitter documentation of prison life as she’s holed up and tortured in a desecrated French hotel, writing out her story and her secrets while Engel translates it into German. There’s no question that Queenie’s fate is sealed; she is destined for death no matter what and can only buy time to finish her pages. If it’s good enough (and von Linden seems to like it), perhaps she can negotiate for or trick them into granting her a kinder, quicker death than anything they have planned. (The word ‘kerosene’ is often throw around.) Although perhaps she is a little fearless – she can’t resist, can’t stop herself from getting in digs at von Linden and Engel, even though she gets punished for it. Von Linden seems to show some sympathy, often coming in to talk with Queenie about German literature. Engel, a chemist, largely seems to find Queenie a thorn in her side. Of course, Queenie does point out on occasion that Engel needs to get laid, something no one ever wants to hear.
At the end of her days, though, Queenie witnesses too close the execution of the girl imprisoned in the room next to hers. It is a death that is her fault in part because, unable to take the French girl’s screams anymore, she instructs the girl to lie. Any information, even false, will extend the French girl’s life, Queenie thinks. But she is wrong, because the Germans don’t like this advice being bandied about and kill the French girl in part for her lack of cooperation and in part to punish Queenie. It is only then she gives her real name, Julie, and writes over and over again until she falls asleep, “I have told the truth.”
It’s amazing, given how slowly I thought the book started, and how bored I was in general with the history stuff, how hard and how quickly I fell for Julie without even knowing it. I was devastated by her abrupt and unfinished end, and the only thing that gave me hope was the knowledge that I was only about halfway through.
And here’s where it gets truly interesting. Act one, Julie’s narrative, ends in the plane as Maddie is taking Julie – a Special Operations Executive agent who works undercover as German interrogator Eva Seiler – to her next assignment in France. Their plane is fired upon and Julie has to parachute out before Maddie makes a crash landing. And that’s where act two starts, Maddie’s (highly dangerous) notes on her escape after her landing. The worst has already happened – the plane is broken, Maddie really isn’t supposed to be there, and even if she was, she and Julie have switched papers by mistake.
Maddie ends up assuming Julie’s coded identity as she lives with a French family in the Resistance, whose son/brother is one of the men torturing Julie (unbeknownst to Maddie et al., who are desperately searching for her). Maddie treads on very unsteady ground, untrained in subterfuge and consumed with worry. We now get to see Julie’s time in prison from the outside, and it’s actually astonishing:
– Georgia Penn, an American broadcaster for German radio, interviews Julie to show to Yankee audiences that it’s just swell being interrogated by Germans – look at this nice hotel! Her nails have been done! She’s just a translator! But in actuality Penn is something of a double agent who goes into secure locations in search of missing people. The powers of a press pass in action. Her entire interview was coded, a delicate dance of information that Julie managed to get out, not knowing who Penn was, and with Nazis in the room, solely prompted by the casual dropping of her codename in conversation.
– Anna Engel is a recruit! In her hours translating Julie’s papers, she and Julie were covertly putting together information to get out to (hopefully Maddie, but) any RAF allies nearby.
It was stuff like this that made me immediately have to finger-mark my page and go back through the first act to reread sections to verify all of this information and these amazing hidden details.
Even if the setting doesn’t hit my buttons, the girls and their friendship do. They’re wonderfully complex. Maddie, the emotional girl who just wants to fly, but is capable of amazing fearless things without realizing their amazingness or fearlessness. Julie, the perhaps unhinged spitfire who thinks on her feet so impressively, but is so compassionate and feeling and overwhelmed. Their friendship, a mutual admiration society where they would literally give their lives for one another. Maddie pulls off some daring flight maneuvers trying to extinguish their plane, thinking only of getting Julie safely to her location. Julie comes into France with a new secret identity, but upon realizing the paper switch, never gives it up so Maddie can safely assume it. And those eleven codes she sold out, earning the derision and hatred of every other captive at the hotel prison? Utterly made up. They save each other’s lives, though for the duration of their time in France, they are only together once.
Make no bones about it, this was gripping. Delightfully intricate enough that I immediately went back and reread sections with my newfound knowledge and perspective, and altogether I was just amazed by the storytelling and the heartbreaking beauty of it. When Julie dies (and I did warn you there’d be massive spoilers, although I also pointed out that she considered it an inevitability, and therefore you should as well), it is done in the most perfect way, even though it kills you a little bit inside. This book killed me a little bit inside.