As a child, I was fascinated by books about the holocaust. I read about the life of Hannah Senesh, the Israeli paratrooper who parachuted into Hungary and was caught and eventually executed by the Gestapo. I read accounts of children in Treblinka, the Diary of Anna Frank, and The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev. But when the film Schindler’s List came out, I went to watch it and discovered that my tolerance for the horrors of the holocaust has come to an end. Ever after, I concentrated on comedies, fairy tales, and other, mostly feel-good books, creating a bubble of good will and peace for myself in our crazy world.
Despite my “life is good” tendencies, however, I found it impossible to ignore Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which came up again and again in reviews since it was published in February 2012. Marjorie Ingall says in The New York Times Book Review: “Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel, the kind you have to read twice.” Thea, in her review on the blog “Book Smugglers,” calls it: “a phenomenal read” and “beautifully, painfully executed.” Ana, the other Book Smuggler, gave the book a rating 10 for perfect and wrote: “If you decide to read this book, keep a box of tissues at hand. There will be tears, and they will be sad ones. But it’s worth it, it is SO worth it.”
So of course I had to read the book. How could I avoid it?
Code Name Verity tells the story of two British girls at the time of World War II. Queenie, the narrator, parachuted into France to be a wireless operator and was caught and tortured by the gestapo. The story she writes is her confession and the story of her friend Maddie, the pilot who had flown her to France and had, so Queenie fears, been killed when her plane crashed.
Code Name Verity is not an easy book to read. Jumping between Queenie’s past in England and her present in the gestapo jail, the book moves slowly, inevitably, towards its end. Queenie is trying to buy herself more time, a little more life, before what she knows is a certain execution. The reluctance of all reviewers to give any hint as to what happens in the end (except that it is shockingly different from anything the reader expects and turns the entire novel upside down, making you want to read again to see the hints that underlie every sentence) forbade me from leaving the novel unfinished.
Poetry in prose, every word and turn of phrase important. Elizabeth Wein is a master story-teller and a superhuman plotter. The canvas she has created is as rich as life itself, the characters real and breathing. Looking back at it now, I see the novel in a series of sepia photographs, slightly faded around the edges, the truth yet surreal, and I wonder — did I really read it or was it only a dream?