Most people are born into the world as victims of circumstance. The date, location and conditions of birth are beyond their control. Still, there are exceptions to this rule. Due to multiple name changes, a habit of consistently altering her age on official documents, and a lack of witnesses, Christine Granville’s efforts to exercise control over her life and memory overcome the ostensibly unalterable specifics of her birth. Despite various attempts to obscure or alter the facts of her life, this much is clear: Granville (née Krystyna Skarbek) was never a person to sit back while others determined her future. In the face of danger, espionage, and that insurmountable beast known as bureaucracy, Granville fought tooth and nail to get the life she wanted.
"With THE SPY WHO LOVED, Mulley brings to life just how vibrant Granville was despite her environment. Mulley’s gimlet eye and extensive investigation stand her in good stead, and her portrait vividly recreates the vivacious woman who came into her own during a time when many were falling to pieces."
Clare Mulley’s THE SPY WHO LOVED is well researched and contains the meticulous detail one might expect in a drier account of allied intelligence efforts in Eastern Europe during World War II. However, it reads more as one-third adventure, one-third romance, and one-third history. Undoubtedly, the book owes much to its dramatic subject. It is dotted with innumerable stories of Granville’s poise and quick-thinking under pressure, and her personal panache is attested to through the personal records that Mulley includes of contemporaries who mention her in passing or in depth.
Mulley’s account heavily emphasizes Granville’s intense patriotism and her proclivity for passionate love affairs. While these two identifying characteristics may be at the center of Granville’s person, Mulley does not downplay the complexities of her situation. Granville isn’t just a Pole --- she’s a woman, part Jewish, from a bankrupt aristocratic family. While remarkably little is made of Granville’s religious background (she seems to feel little connection to Jews other than her mother), her nationality, class and sex all cause her to face various obstacles while attempting to serve the allied forces. Although these barriers are unsurprising in light of the period, Mulley makes it clear what an asset Granville was and how much more she felt she could have been, due to the very qualities that impeded her professional advancement.
While the portrait Mulley creates is of a woman motivated by a desire to serve her country and a thirst for danger, Granville’s story is unique in another respect as well. Her drive to free Poland from the tyranny and oppression of surrounding forces was matched only by her equally strong need to love and be loved. Almost universally, Granville was seen as a desirable woman who sought and found lovers at every turn. Beyond her long-term involvement with Andrzej Kowerski and two marriages, she had a number of ongoing affairs as well as brief dalliances at almost every juncture in her life. Aside from how unusual this was for a woman during that period, it is remarkable because of the discreteness required by her livelihood. At times self-involved to the point of cruelty, Granville sees very little to restrain her from intimately enjoying the men she encounters on her journeys.
There is a common thread between Granville’s love affairs and her wartime service. Both illuminate a woman trying to enjoy herself and live without fear or restriction during a horrific period under tenuous circumstances. With THE SPY WHO LOVED, Mulley brings to life just how vibrant Granville was despite her environment. Mulley’s gimlet eye and extensive investigation stand her in good stead, and her portrait vividly recreates the vivacious woman who came into her own during a time when many were falling to pieces.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on July 3, 2013