Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Young adult, adventure, fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Summary: (from the back cover) I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.
That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine — and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.
He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France — an Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.
So I first heard about Code Name Verity at LeakyCon this past summer. During the panel on gender in YA, the authors and agents were talking about the structures that dominate girl-centered novels. There is usually romance or a badass heroine saving the world or supernaturally-toned werevampangels fighting over a sassy lady. Then someone (whose face escapes me 5 months later because I am getting old, y’all) said we needed to read Code Name Verity, because it did not conform to the de facto rules dominating YA. “Bah, a girl YA novel without werewolves abs? I have never heard of such a thing!” I thought to myself. And because grad school ruined my life for the past 15 months, I finally got around to picking this book up.
Confirmation: You all need to read Code Name Verity. Right now.
But first – I am going to be slightly spoilery in the review, because I can’t really talk about some things without revealing an interesting bit of plot structure. So, if you want the book to be a complete surprise, stop here. All I will say is: be prepared for a heart-stopping wartime adventure, two truly likable and beautifully developed protagonists, and a tightly twisting plot.
“Wartime adventure novel” sounds like the last thing on earth that I would want to read. Besides anything written by a reality TV star, of course. Slightly skeptical of the concept, I turned to the first page and was immediately intrigued by the opening line. “I AM A COWARD.” War stories never start out this way – the heroes are brave and true! Never cowards. To emphatically state this before I can form my own opinion on the protagonist was unexpected. Which pretty much sums up my experience with this book. Despite being told by several people how wonderful it was, I discovered new things with almost every flip of the page.
The whole conceit of the novel is this: Queenie, a fiery Scottish girl turned wartime spy, was sent undercover to occupied France. She was caught by Germans almost immediately because of one small detail – she looked the wrong way crossing the street. Now she is a prisoner, and after a week of torture decides to give the Nazis information. But the Nazis think she is Maddie Brodatt because that’s what her papers say. In fact, Maddie is her best friend and the pilot who brought her to France. So the Nazis want to Queenie to reveal information about Britain’s airfields, but she has to convince them she is not actually Maddie. So the setup of this novel is Queenie telling the story of how she and Maddie became friends, and how she ended up in occupied France with the wrong papers. She is given two weeks to tell the story, after which death is either going to come quickly in the form of a bullet or slowly in a concentration camp.
That’s the basic plot (and I won’t give away any more than that!), and there’s also tons of information on airplanes, the roles women took on during wartime, and plenty of subterfuge and espionage. While this is all incredibly interesting and makes for an intelligent thriller, the true heart of the books lies in the relationship between Maddie and Queenie. They have to grow up against the backdrop of a war, but the strength they find in each other makes life worthwhile. There is nothing cheesy or lopsided in this friendship; they are equal partners in this story.
Speaking of story – if you’ve read this blog (or at least read it when I actually posted reviews and wasn’t a terrible, no-good Bibliomantic), then you will know that I really love when authors tackle the idea of storytelling within a narrative. And even if you didn’t know that, now you do! This book is highly aware of itself as a book. The narrator knows she is telling a story, and will often talk about this concept. At one point, Queenie pauses to write “I wonder how many piles of paper like mine are lying around Europe, the only testament to our silenced voices, buried in filing cabinets and steamer trunks and cardboard boxes as we disappear.” This image was so powerful – because it subverts our idea of ephemera. Paper is usually far more transitory than a human, but not in the reality of WWII. Hidden stacks of paper were more likely to survive than the actual narrator. Queenie is keenly aware of this fact, and her readers must bear this aching truth.
Whiskey Tango Fucking hell, I did not want the book to end the way it did. I literally kept hope until the very last page that the deux ex machina eagle would save these characters from a fate that they did not deserve. Or that I was misunderstanding the words before me. But no – reading and rereading a certain passage confirmed that I was going to remain heartbroken for the foreseeable future. But I can’t be mad at Elizabeth Wein – she had too much respect for her characters and readers to cop out and give us a happy ending. Again, the overall meta theme of storytelling comes into play here. Queenie, commenting earlier in the text on how those reading might want the story told differently, says “because that would be a happy ending, the right ending for a jolly girls’ adventure story.” But this book is so much more than an adventure story.
Code Name Verity is bursting with life – absurd adventures with your best friend, the exuberant feeling of flight, the camaraderie formed by fighting for a noble cause. So when the inevitable crash comes, you feel the pain so sharply that it stops your breath. These characters become important to you, and you don’t realize it until you’re already invested. It was sneaky – I thought I was just reading a thrilling story of spies and friendship. But then suddenly my heart is in my throat and my nerves are jangling and I want more than anything for Gandalf to call that damn eagle in. Because Queenie and Maddie are real and flawed and I want them to have a happy ending as if they were my best friends. But that’s kind of the point – sometimes being incredibly brave and true to your friends is not enough in this world. Sometimes our stories don’t get satisfying endings because there are bigger things at play than narrative structures. And it speaks to the skill of the author that even as I logically know these things, emotionally I beg for it to be different.
I am going to be haunted by the lives of Queenie and Maddie for a long time, but there are worse ghosts to have around.