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In his latest novel Trapeze, British writer Simon Mawer has delivered an engaging and fast paced WWII thriller. Based on actual events, Trapeze tells the story of Marian Sutro, a nineteen-year-old Brit recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for her fluency in French. Already a member of the WAAF, (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), Marian is anxious to do more for the war effort and jumps at the chance of being sent overseas.
Having completed her training in combat and espionage, the girl is set to embark on her first mission in the South-West of France, when she is approached by another organization offering her an irresistible assignment. Clement Pelletier is a scientist living in Paris, who happens to be an old friend of her brother. Marian, having never gotten over the crush she had on Clement as a girl, agrees to travel to Paris, seek him out and convince him to join a group of scientists working in England. Along the way, she becomes romantically involved with another agent and must learn to maneuver through the emotional pitfalls of adult relationships. While committed to two separate tasks, she finds herself with multiple identities and must keep them all straight while operating under the nose of the Nazis who occupy the city and are on constant alert for spies.
Mawer has created an admirable heroine in Marian, although she is at times not entirely likeable. Despite her youth, she possesses the maturity and steely nerve of someone much older and experienced. If she were a few years younger, she might still be considered precocious, but at nineteen, her confidence and delivery often come across as brash and condescending. Her actions fall more in line with those of a cocky young man rather than those of a young woman, which brings us to one of the novel’s themes. Marian seems to constantly exist somewhere between two worlds. Nineteen can be a difficult age to define as it signifies the end of the teen years and the beginning of adulthood, placing her in that gray area where she is neither a girl nor a woman. Casting her further into the ‘neither nor’ area is the fact that she is the daughter of a French mother and an English father, once again leaving her in between. And while she is placed in situations that would be considered dangerous for the most seasoned agent, she manages to make swift and necessary decisions well enough, but often times reverts back to the emotions of a younger girl, wondering what her mother and father would think of her job.
Among the many agencies that operated during World War II, the SOE was not created to gather intelligence. Its goal was instead to support resistance movements and wreak as much havoc as possible for the enemy. During the war, the agency recruited and trained thousands of agents who were then sent to various countries in Europe and Asia to work behind enemy lines. Mawers’ parents both served in the war and became acquainted with a woman named Anne-Marie Walters, on whom the character of Marian is based. Walters was one of fifty female agents of the SOE, sent to France during the war.
Mawer does a solid job describing the conditions that existed in Paris during the war, from the coffee made out of acorns to the overcrowded trains, and the constant presence of Nazis. The novel is well written and suspenseful, often times keeping the reader on the edge of their seat as Marian must decide who she can trust and who she must avoid while making life or death decisions on the fly.
For fans of WWII fiction, Trapeze offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of one of Britain’s lesser known organizations.