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.
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 reading 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?