My Carnegie-nominated reads continue with Code Name Verity. This book cut me up. I thought it unlikely that any of the nominees could best Wonder’s worthiness for the award; I was wrong. I’m going to festoon this review with spoilers like they are going out of style, because I want to talk about what happens in this book and why that makes it so good.
Code Name Verity excels on multiple levels. It’s a great story: entertaining, thrilling even, packed with emotional moments that can occasionally feel like a punch to the gut. It has two capable but distinctive heroines whose exploits highlight both the danger inherent in the war, even for civilians. Most importantly, this book is an amazing example of kickass storytelling: characters and plot aside, the intricate way in which this tale is crafted has blown me away.
I kind of want to discuss the storytelling hand-in-hand with the story, so let’s talk about the characters first. Wein seizes upon the presence of women civilian pilots in the latter days of the war (though, for dramatic purposes, she sets the story a bit earlier). Julie Beaufort-Stuart is Scottish and of noble birth. Thanks to her schooling in Switzerland and a brief semester at Oxford, Julie’s German and her impeccable acting skills land her a job interrogating German prisoners. Her best friend is Maddie Brodatt, a middle-class girl whose mechanical skills and insatiable love for flying help her get a job in the Air Transport Auxiliary, and later, flying people like Julie on secret missions within England.
I love the distinctive characterization of these two heroines. Julie is just so Scottish—her indignation whenever someone refers to her as English is a running gag throughout the book. She also has a very strong sense of honour and duty, even if the perspective she provides us attempts to make it seem otherwise. It’s not until very close to the end of the book, after Maddie fills in the blanks in our knowledge, that we understand just how collected and careful Julie was throughout her weeks of imprisonment.
In contrast, Maddie is a less confident, more humble person who realizes quickly just how out of her depth she is. Like Julie, she excels in her chosen field, and her loyalty to her friends (and country) is second to none. Maddie bites off much more than she can chew in order to save Julie, and in the end I think Maddie has to pay a much higher price than Julie. In this way, Wein manages to create two protagonists who are both capable people with strengths and weaknesses uniquely their own.
By providing us with both characters’ perspectives, Wein creates a story greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Wein works creatively with the idea of unreliable narrators. Wein has Julie narrate the first half of Code Name Verity through a confession, of sorts, in which Julie is supposed to divulge as much as she knows about British airplanes, airfields, etc., to the German Gestapo officer holding her prisoner. Julie, a student of literature, elects to spin out this confession into a story. Along the way, we get a great sense of her character and temperament from the asides and outbursts she records on the page.
This narrative structure allows Wein and Julie to get away with a lot of neat tricks. Julie starts her story by introducing Maddie, not herself. Later, Julie introduces a character named “Queenie”, a wireless operator who meets Maddie by chance and becomes good friends with her. The woman translating Julie’s story into German expresses exasperation and impatience at the way Julie is divulging information. The Gestapo officer, von Linden, is more forgiving, congratulating Julie on her use of suspense and foreshadowing. In this way, Julie’s narrative is a very self-aware story with its seams bare for all to see, and it becomes a nice little game for the reader to look more deeply at how is she telling the story.
Much of the significance is necessarily lost to even the keenest-eyed reader until Maddie’s portion of the story begins. Just as Julie’s time runs out, Wein switches to Maddie’s perspective, written as a kind of report/journal that Maddie keeps while she is hiding out in the French countryside. Whereas Wein begins the story with Julie already incarcerated and, ostensibly, broken, she forces us to live vicariously through Maddie as the latter learns all about Julie’s capture and imprisonment. Maddie is struck by a feeling of ironic powerlessness: here she is, actually in France, practically operational as one might say in the lingo of the day … yet she might as well be sitting back in England, for all the good it does Julie.
Maddie’s perspective is most valuable for allowing us to step outside the confines of Julie’s unreliable narration and realize what a liar she has been. Again, Julie and Wein foreshadow this throughout Julie’s story, particularly in the scene between Julie and the French girl. But the depth to which Julie’s story is a subversion instead of a confession—the seemingly-random underlining that obviously had a meaning, the conversation with Georgia Penn—is impressive. It provides the reader with an entirely new side of Julie’s personality.
Additionally, it raised my appreciation for Wein’s writing even higher. I was already having fun (not to mention completely torn up by Julie’s plight). And now, these revelations made me go back and re-read certain sections of the book, hindsight allowing me to understand nuances to conversations or descriptions that I wasn’t previously aware of. The amount of planning and calculation that went into creating this story must have been considerable; this is what I mean when I say that Code Name Verity is well-crafted.
And then there is the ending. I avoided crying for most of the book. I even avoided crying when Maddie shot Julie. But the letter from Julie’s mother was the last straw. Julie sacrificed everything for king and country … but Maddie sacrificed her best friend, at her own hands. And now she has to live with that for the rest of her life. Thanks to the way Wein has developed their friendship, through both pairs of eyes, Julie’s death is meaningful and moving. Maddie’s involvement pushes the pathos to its maximum, and the letter from Julie’s mother ties everything up—and pushed me over the edge.
This edition has a blurb on the front cover from The Daily Mail: “A remarkable book, which had me horrified and totally gripped at the same time.” Normally, I like to make fun of cover blurbs, especially those that have been boiled down to three or more seemingly-unconnected adjectives. I can’t do that here, because this blurb is entirely accurate: it summarizes exactly how I felt as I read Code Name Verity. At the back of this edition, there are fourteen more blurbs in praise of this book. Every single one of them is accurate and deserved.
My effusive appreciation for Code Name Verity raises just one question: would young adults really find this book as fulfilling? The Carnegie award showcases books for children/young adults, and this book definitely pushes towards the far end of that spectrum. It works best when one can appreciate the depth of Julie and Maddie’s friendship, not to mention the hardships they each experience during their time in France. Nevertheless, while its appeal would be more restricted to older children, I do think it would appeal. It’s an interesting way to get older children to begin thinking about World War II on a personal level, as well as highlight the role of women in World War II.
I’m not a huge fan of fiction set in World War II. But I try not to let that prejudice me when I do elect to read a book in that era, and I’m glad, because Code Name Verity is an exception. It’s just so good.