Code Name Verity is set in the throes of the Second World War—a story about two girls who discover friendship in the face of Germany’s assault on England. It’s about how they end up in Nazi occupied France at the height of the War.
The story starts in the form of a confession:
I am a coward.
I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling bridge with my five big brothers—and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.
And so our prisoner succumbs in the face of torture and readily gives codes, locations and the like to the enemy. What we read is an account of her confession to her jailers, who include:
The comedians Laurel and Hardy, I mean Underling-Seargent Thibaut and On-Duty-Female-Guard Engel
Yes, she pokes fun at her jailers while she confesses to them. It’s quite quite funny. And heartbreaking. Because you can’t help wondering at the reality of the physical torture that she must have been subjected to underneath the jaunty tone that she maintains throughout her account. There’s slanting references to the physicality of her capture and the enormity of what must have been done to her becomes magnified when she talks about another prisoner, a French girl who refuses to give in and is ultimately guillotined in front of our heroine.
This technique of just hinting at the atrocities leaves quite a lot to the reader’s imagination and can be chilling.
And yet, I’m also glad that Miss Wein doesn’t resort to a full-scale description. With her skills I imagine that would have made for a really difficult reading experience.
To give you an example of Miss Wein’s prowess, here’s a bit in the beginning of the book that had me laughing (a bit of context: Maddie and Beryl had been having a picnic in a field and have just spied a plane on fire, “spinning ineffectively” and plummeting downwards):
The aircraft’s final pass pulled all the litter of their lunch out into the field, brown crusts and brown paper fluttering in the blue smoke like the devil’s confetti.
Maddie said it would have been a good landing if it had been on an aerodome. In the field the wounded flying machine bounced haplessly over the unmown grass for thirty yards. Then it tipped up gracefully onto its nose.
Oh those last two lines—the image that’s pulled up at the use of “hapelessly” juxtaposed with that last line puts in mind the picture of a great, big lummox having a go at ballet in a comic play.
And then there’s the bit half-way through the book when our confessor has just got to the details of her last ill-fated flight:
It’s awful, telling it like this, isn’t it? As though we didn’t know the ending. As though it could have another ending. It’s like watching Romeo drinking poison. Every time you see it you get fooled into thinking his girlfriend might wake up and stop him. Every single time you see it you want to shout, “You stupid ass, just wait a minute,” and she’ll open her eyes! “Oi, you, you twat, open your eyes, wake up! Don’t die this time!” But they always do.
See what I mean? Miss Wein is fiendishly good at evoking the right emotions and the right atmosphere. Tense, lark-like, bittersweet, she writes all of them beautifully.
I don’t want to say anything else about the book lest I spoil it. It has to be read to get the full force of what Miss Wein builds right under the nose of the reader.
Code Name Verity sank its hooks into me and I finished the bulk of it in one sitting. It’s a clever book that will most likely leave you in tears. And for the life of me, I still cannot understand why it’s been shelved under YA because the themes it deals with—from female friendship to the role of women in War—is most certainly of interest and relevance to all ages.
Reading the book, I was in tears at the strength and the generosity of the human spirit that speaks up for what it considers wrong regardless of the danger that speaking up might cause to one’s own self. Code Name Verity is a book that makes you think about what it means to be courageous. Perhaps, being brave is just doing things you think need to be done despite the heart palpitations and the quickening pulses.