Tuesday 29 October 2019

Code Name Verity

With the exception of Birdsong, which was extraordinary, I read very little fiction set in the two world wars. I'm not really much of a spy thriller or romance fan, and that's what most of it tends to be about. However, I found myself on an Audible sales binge and needed to make up the basket number. I thought the premise of this one sounded good, so added it to the cart:

Code Name Verity is a compelling, emotionally rich story with universal themes of friendship and loyalty, heroism and bravery. Two young women from totally different backgrounds are thrown together during World War II: one a working-class girl from Manchester, the other a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a wireless operator. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted friends. But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in Verity's own words, as she writes her account for her captors.

I found the first half dragged me in, but the second half, where it changed perspective, was a bit of a slow burn - up until the climax, which was rather unexpected and extremely memorable. I was listening on Audible, and had set it to turn off at the end of the chapter. When it did, I lay there in stunned silence, waiting for the next sentence, which of course didn't come. Ten out of ten for setting that up and knocking it down. Very good storytelling. 

Please forgive any errors below as I'm transcribing from audio clips, one annoying issue with reviewing audiobooks, as you can't check the original text.

There were some insightful moments:

People are complicated. There's so much more to everybody than you realise. You see someone in school every day, or at work in the canteen, and you share a cigarette or a coffee with them, and you talk about the weather or last night's air raid, but you don't talk so much about what was the nastiest thing you said to your mother, or how you pretended to be David Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, for the whole of the year when you were thirteen, or what you imagine yourself doing with the pilot who looks like Leslie Howard if you were alone in his bunk after a dance.

Some funny ones:

[The ATA] fly without radio or navigation aids. They do have maps, but they're not allowed to mark balloons or new airfields on them in case they lose the maps and you lot pick them up. Maddie did a training course when she joined, early in 1941, and she had one instructor who told her, "You don't need a map, just fly this heading for as long as it takes to smoke two cigarettes. Then turn, and fly the next heading for another cigarette... FDF - Fag Direction Finding.

Some very interesting factual ones:

Since 1940, we have not come off daylight saving at all, and in summer it is double, which means for a whole month it doesn't get dark till nearly midnight.
I wonder where that is right now, the safest place in the world? Even the neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, are surrounded. Ireland's stuck with being divided. They have to mark the neutral bit IRELAND in big letters made of whitewashed stones, hoping the Germans won't drop bombs there thinking it's the UK side of the northern border. I've seen it from the air.

And the occasional literary sparkler:
But a part of me lies buried in lace and roses, on a riverbank in France. A part of me has broken off forever. A part of me will always be unflyable.


The Official Secrets Act is of little consequence in a house which absorbs secrets like damp. 

I also learned that Aberdeen's dialect is called Doric (you can hear a sample here), that Hitler had a real downer on smoking and it appears women weren't allowed to buy cigarettes in some places, and a fascinating bit about the invention of the ballpoint pen, originally known as Etta Pens. The author explained this at the end of the book, 'as paper and ink are the fabric of this novel.'

So I thought I ought to check to make sure ballpoint pens existed in 1943. It turns out they did, but only just. The ballpoint pen was invented my László Bíró, a Hungarian journalist who fled to Argentina to escape the German occupation of Europe. In 1943 he licensed his invention to the RAF, and the first ballpoint pens were manufactured in Reading, England, by the Miles Aircraft manufacturer to supply pilots with a lasting ink supply.

Which brings me to an issue I'm still making my mind up about audiobooks. This one reminded me a bit of Before We Were Yours, partly because they both had characters called Queenie, and also because, at the end, the authors added an explanation of some of the details in their books.

I enjoyed Wingate's supplementary in Before We Were Yours, because I was extremely curious to know the real-life events the book was based on. I went off and had a good Google afterwards. However, a lot of the time it can be quite intrusive. With a print edition, you can read the last sentence, close the book, lie back and absorb what you've just read. But with an audiobook, it ploughs on regardless, and before you know it, you've got an author who starts to explain the reasoning behind plot decisions, points out and tries to explain any inaccuracies and stretches of the imagination, and offers up extra titbits from their research. This can really break the spell. And it's not the author's fault, a lot of what they're saying is interesting, but it's a fault with audiobooks that you don't get a chance to decide whether to finish at the end of the story or the end of the book. Plus, this edition also had a really pushy book advert at the end which just left me thinking bugger off

That aside though, it was a good story. I'm glad I bought it. Memorable.

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