Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review of Tightrope by Simon Mawer (2015, Abacus)

1943. Marian Sutro, a special operations agent working in France, is arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated, tortured, thrown into prison, then shipped to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There she survives by taking someone else’s identity. Two years later she escapes when her column of workers are strafed by a plane. A couple of days later she stumbles into the hands of the Americans and shortly after she is flown back to Britain. Finding it difficult to adjust to post-war life and to cope with the horrors she’s experienced she takes up a job working as a librarian and quickly gets married. The threat of the nuclear age and the cold war weighs on her shoulders and when an opportunity arises to take up her career as an agent again, she takes her chance, hoping that this time she’ll make a difference that she wants. Making amends, however, is never easy when there are divided loyalties and mixed motives at play.

Tightrope is the second book in a pair about Marian Sutro, a SOE agent dropped into France in 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo a short time later. This book picks up Marian’s story in 1945 at the point where she emerges from Ravensbrück concentration camp. It can be read as a standalone as it gives a good precis of her arrest and incarceration. Marian returns to Britain to be debriefed and to convalesce with the help of her family and a psychiatrist. She finds it hard to adjust to post-war life and the guilt of survival and is horrified by the nuclear age, her role in helping to extract a scientist from France, as well as the work of her physicist brother. SOE find her a job working as a librarian at a left-wing organization and she quickly marries a former pilot, while occasionally having affairs. She still craves purpose and adventure, so when an opportunity arises to slip back into the intelligence world she takes it. This time, however, she’s not simply doing the work for King and country, but also her own agenda. Mawer tells her story via a narrative pieced together by her biographer, Samuel, who’d been obsessed with her ever since he was a boy and she used to visit his home. It’s an interesting approach as it allows for hesitancy and silences where the biographer has to speculate about motives and what really occurred. The tale is effectively an in-depth character study of a complex woman living on the edge through difficult times. It is very nicely plotted, with Marian struggling with loyalties and motives, and her past and her future, as she’s drawn into the cold war intelligence and romance. The result is a thoughtful, engaging, nicely paced story of finding one’s place after a tragic adventure.

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