Code Name: Verity

So, Code Name: Verity. It was first published in 2012. It was shortlisted for both the Printz Award and the Carnegie Medal, so it’s not as though I’m drawing attention to unsung heroines, here. But I finally made time to read Elizabeth Wein’s novel last week and when I’d finally finished sobbing, all I could wonder is why I’d let it languish for two years.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity

As you may already know, Code Name: Verity is a story of friendship during the Second World War. The first part of the book is a narrative written by “Verity”, aka Julie, a Scottish girl spy who’s been caught by the Gestapo in Nazi France. It’s supposed to be Julie’s confession, her cowardly attempt to abate torture and to extend her life just a little further, by giving up precious wartime secrets: sets of radio code, names of British airfields and army bases, the Allied use of RADAR technology. And yet, this narrative simply cannot be what it claims. That is the tension that drives this book.

Julie’s story is a memoir – a platonic love-letter, even – about a profound friendship between two young women performing extremely dangerous wartime jobs. It’s a terrifying, witty, completely persuasive behind-the-scenes account of British defense activity. It’s beautifully told. But Wein’s brilliant stroke in this book is that Julie must be an unreliable narrator. There’s no way that a young woman of her intelligence and courage (especially as demonstrated in the narrative) could write a straightforwardly treasonous confession. And so I swore, and squirmed in my chair, and shook, and was compelled to read on.

The second narrative is written by Julie’s best friend Maddie, a shot-down pilot, and it picks up after Julie’s arrest. It’s told in much plainer language, as suits Maddie’s character, and it’s a shattered reflection of Julie’s so-called confession. It fills in blanks, it forces you to flip back to re-read parts of Julie’s memoir, it moves the story on swiftly and with an equal sense of valour.

I was a snivelling wreck when I finished Code Name: Verity, and I mean that in the best way possible. Like nearly everybody else who’s read it, I highly, highly recommend it.

As a writer, I was further struck by two elements that I hope I can learn from. The first is Wein’s use of counterpoint (to borrow the musical term): “the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically and yet are independent in rhythm and contour” (that’s from the wikipedia definition). This is something I’m attempting in my current work-in-progress, and readingĀ Code Name: Verity was like getting a tutorial from a more experienced writer. I also took note of Wein’s techniques for introducing humour into a story that is always going to be a tragedy. I won’t be able to borrow directly from her, here, but it was lovely to see it done so well.

It’s both inspiring and daunting, to read a novel that so brilliantly occupies ground that I’m planning to re-tread (my WIP is also set during the Second World War). But these days, I’m finding it more inspiring than anything else, and for that I am grateful.

Have you read Code Name: Verity, friends? What did you think?

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5 Responses to “Code Name: Verity”

  1. GEW says:

    I have also read the book and thought it to be amazing in terms of structure and powerful in terms of emotional effect. But I’ll admit that I found the first 100 pages challenging as I tried to make sense of Julie and her voice. As soon as I finished it, I knew that I would benefit from a re-reading. Your review is great, and I’m glad you put the book back on my radar!

  2. Ying says:

    Thanks, GEW. I was also very interested in the fact that it’s called YA. As far as I can see, it’s only YA because of Maddie’s and Julie’s ages, and perhaps because it finally offers a clear resolution. It felt thoroughly adult to me, otherwise. I’d love to hear your thoughts after your re-read!

  3. Jason says:

    This is one of my favourite books – I read it around January of last year, and the moment I had finished it I knew I had to read it again, which I did, and after crying (in a good way) through both reads I knew I had to buy it for my bookshelf. It is really powerful, and gives a more in depth view of some of the things that really happened in World War 2. I am glad you liked that book – it was nice to your thoughts on it. A similarly good book that I really like (despite its brutality) that takes place in World War 2 is called Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, which has absolutely nothing to do with the ’50 Shades’ craze. If you ever were to read it, I am sure you would enjoy it, although there were a few scenes that were not YA in Between Shades of Gray as well.

  4. Margaret says:

    The news that you have a WIP set during WWII is so exciting that I almost don’t even have space to be delighted that you loved Code Name: Verity as much as I did.

    Hahaha, just kidding. I *am* giddy about that! I sat on this one for months, because it seemed as though it would be impossible for it to live up to the extravagant praise everyone lavished on it. MORE FOOL I. Because it was so perfect and so completely decimating. Your review here encouraged me to grab the audiobook, which I’ve heard is very good, so that I’ll have something new to re-listen to once I finish revisiting The Agency audiobooks :)

  5. Ying says:

    Jason, thank you very much for the book rec! I’ve never heard of Sepetys, so I’ll be sure to check it out. Margaret, for one terrible moment I misread your comment and thought you hadn’t admired CNV. I was extremely concerned for the future of our relationship! And yes, I think I waited to read CNV for similar reasons. Hope the audiobook is splendid, too.

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