In the midst of World War II, between 1941 and 1944, the Allies sent 53 women into the field --- the only women the Allies trained for military combat. They were part of the French Section of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Of these, 12 were murdered following their capture by the Germans, while one died of meningitis during her mission. The remainder survived the war. Their solitary efforts and special skills were used for missions of intense importance and life-threatening danger.
"Mawer deftly blends psychological intrigue along with espionage to keep the story pulsing with life and constant tension."
Simon Mawer’s latest novel, TRAPEZE, tells the story of one these mostly faceless and nameless heroines of WWII. Marian Sutro is a recent college grad and fairly naïve about the ways of the world. What she does possess are some qualities that make her a perfect fit for the SOE. Most importantly, she is a native French speaker with an enthusiastic desire to do her part for the war effort.
Marian is sent to Scotland where she will receive arduous training in combat and espionage, among other things. The SOE believes in preparing their operatives to the fullest, knowing that many of their missions will be one-way trips. She learns about death and destruction --- how to blow a door, put a car out of action, destroy a train. She befriends a few of her fellow operatives, particularly Benoit and Yvette, and their relationships will present key elements to the novel’s plot once they are each sent into the field on their missions.
Before venturing onto her first assignment in France, Marian meets with her brother Ned in London. Ned is a brilliant physicist who is doing his own part for the Allied cause by seeking to obtain and contain other brilliant minds from around the world. He tells Marian of important work being done with nuclear fission, the result of which could be the world’s first nuclear bomb with the capability of wiping out entire cities.
Shortly thereafter, Marian finds herself in a small French town where she is waiting for word of what messages she needs to pass on or deliveries she needs to make. She is dropped down into the assignment via a parachute launch from a military plane. Her mission is given the code name Trapeze, possibly insinuating the high-flying danger she is launching herself into --- only this one comes without a net!
It is not long before Marian is summoned --- under an assumed identity --- to Paris, where she must locate several fellow agents who are part of a mission that was broken by the enemy. One of these agents is her old friend, Yvette, who is in disguise as a piano instructor. Marian must attempt to liberate her fellow colleagues and help them secure safe passage back to London. She also goes out of her way to seek out an old friend, Clement, another brilliant mind who she hopes can help her escape Paris for the safety of London where he can assist with the Allied war effort.
It is the relationship between Marian and Clement, as well as her burgeoning feelings for her fellow operative Benoit, that make for a complicated triangle of emotions that really drives the Paris portion of the novel. Mawer deftly blends psychological intrigue along with espionage to keep the story pulsing with life and constant tension. At one point, Clement refers to Marian as “the daring young girl on the flying trapeze,” having no idea how close to the truth he is. Mawer’s portrayal of Marian gives a face to these brave and extraordinary women who more than did their part for the success of the Allied forces during World War II.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 4, 2012