American-born Scottish resident Elizabeth Wein debuted in 1993 with an novel for young adults set in Arthurian Britain. Although she published a few more short stories and essays in the 10 years after her debut, she has been a lot more prolific in the last decade, with another 4 books (all set in Arthurian Britain or 6th century Ethiopia) since 2003. To say that Code Name Verity – a historical novel set in WWII – is a departure from her previous work is true, yet not that inexplicable at the same time. In an afterword to Code Name Verity and on her website, Wein states that it’s her interest in flying that first put her on the right track for Code Name Verity.
It seems that this departure from Arthurian and other fantasy is a successful ‘career switch’ for Wein because since its release earlier this year, Code Name Verity has gotten this immense buzz, and has been named as one of the more plausible Printz contenders. And for that particular prize it indeed has almost everything: WWII as its dramatic historical setting (think of Zusak’s The Book Thief or Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land,… almost every year there are historical novels on the list of Printz Honor Books), an unusual friendship between two unusual women (one a pilot, the other a spy), a distinct narrative point of view (an unreliable narrator telling the story of her friend, and herself (who she then refers to in the 3rd person)), references to some of the greatest British writers (Kipling, J.M. Barrie), immense YA/adult crossover appeal… all that in a story about the friendship between two girls. The Printz seems like a shoe-in…
However, is the story really all that successful? The cat has her doubts. As grand and special this book is set up to be, I feel it fails to deliver on a few fronts.
First there is (are) the unusual narrative point(s) of view, switching between first and third person. In the beginning of the book we learn that ‘Verity’ (but the name is not mentioned in the beginning) has been captured by Nazis and is being questioned, tortured even, by a Gestapo agent, called SS-Hauptsturmführer Von Linden, at the Château de Bordeaux in Ormaie. In exchange for her clothes, ‘Verity’ is ready to give up British wireless codes… she is a coward she claims, and she knows it. To buy herself more time until the inevitable outcome of her tale (she’s a Nacht und Nebel prisoner), she is ready to write down everything she knows about the British War Effort, and everything she knows starts with her meeting her best friend Maddie, the pilot who flew her into France. From then on she writes down the story of Maddie and Queenie – first on hotel stationery, then on prescription forms issued by a Jewish doctor, or also on sheet music or recipe cards. While our narrator – Queenie so it turns out – is sophisticated, the daughter of an aristocratic, with the proper Swiss schooling, Maddie is the daughter of a merchant, who then gets interested in flying and ends up in the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The two girls are supposed to be the best of friends, together they make a sensational team, so our narrator tells us. However, due to the particular way that this story is told, as a reader, I found it very hard to believe the friendship between these two adventurous women. ‘Verity’s’ tale is as much a confession as it is a report about the British War Effort. The narrator starts saying that she has “always been good at pretending”, which of course makes it very hard to believe anything she says from the outset, even and for me especially her friendship with Maddie, which is what is put at the heart of this novel.
Tied in with the confession that ‘Verity’ is writing, is the formatting of her part of the book. I read a paperback issue of Code Name Verity, so I have no idea whether it is different in the original hardcover. I feel that a lot of the believability of ‘Verity’s’ tale is undone because of the format that her part of the book is in. When she claims to write on sheet music, or recipe cards, I don’t actually see that (except for like 2 or 3 pages). If the book had looked like a bunch of papers thrown seemingly haphazardly together, written on different scraps of paper – because that’s what she could get her hands on – I would have believed this a lot more. As it is now, it’s just too much a stretch of the imagination, and I have to suspend my disbelief way too long, to believe that a spy like Verity would be allowed by a Gestapo officer like Von Linden to write down her tale the way she is doing to buy her the time she needs.
I think the best way to describe the experience of reading Code Name Verity is: it’s all very clever. It’s skillful, it’s tightly plotted, the period details are incredible (be prepared to read about planes and flying in a lot of detail!)… but it didn’t really touch me much. Oh, it has all the stock elements to be a critics’ favorite and to be a prize winner, but for me there’s something lacking, and this despite the premise that this is the story of a sensational team of women. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend,” is what ‘Verity’ says in the beginning, but that’s what it fails to do for me. I just didn’t fall in love with this book like so many other people apparently did.