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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Simon Mawer - review

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Simon Mawer

Little, Brown, 320pp, £16.99

Simon Mawer’s first novel – the now out-of-print Chimera (1989) – relates the story of David Hewison, a half-Italian, half-British spy parachuted into occupied Italy during the Second World War. This tale of derring-do is intercut with more sober scenes from Hewison’s later life as an archaeologist digging for Etruscan artefacts. Sifting through the sands of the past, he turns up secrets that illuminate his wartime exploits. Hewison, like the heroine of Mawer’s latest book, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the spy network that dropped agents into Europe during the war. Mawer now gives us Marian Sutro, flung from “the rough comfort of the fuselage into the raging darkness over France”. But Hewison’s archaeological instincts remain: Mawer’s novels have always been about excavating stories from the blank facts of history, about the patterns that come at us when we dig beneath the surface of the past.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky follows closely in the footsteps of two other (relatively) recent novels: William Boyd’s Restless and, particularly, Sebastian Faulkes’s Charlotte Gray. If one were to summarise the plot – young English girl with francophone childhood is recruited
to the SOE and dropped into south-western France, adventures with radio valves, chases through a wartime landscape, tear-jerking conclusion – it would be hard to tell whether one was referring to Charlotte Gray or to Mawer’s 2012 retelling. It is the second time that Faulkes has run into the sincerest form of flattery this year: many felt that John Lanchester’s Capital walked rather too closely in the footsteps of A Week in December.

For his research, Mawer draws on the autobiography of Anne-Marie Walters, Moondrop to Gascony (which also served as the inspiration for Charlotte Gray), but also on the life and death of Eileen Nearne. Nearne, like Marian Sutro in the novel, was parachuted into France and charged with establishing a radio network in Paris. After a series of postwar breakdowns, she was found in her flat in Torquay in 2010. She had been dead for some time. Mawer opens the book with a foreword recalling the bravery of the 39 women of the SOE, particularly “those who remained, and remain, obscure”.

There is a great deal in a name. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is told in free indirect discourse from Marian’s perspective. We build our picture of Marian Sutro over the course of her training in the Scottish Highlands, her fling with a fellow student, a visit to her parents in Oxford: the name “Marian” becomes in our head a knot of images and associations, a composite of the various forms of identification that are drip-fed to the reader over the first third of the novel. But the name is important, because a name will have resonances that the reader brings from his or her own life and which, necessarily, snag on the name. When Marian is dropped into France to undertake her mission, she takes up a code name, Alice. This would all be fine and dandy, except that the narrative voice leaves “Marian” behind and, from then on, our heroine is referred to as “Alice”.

Mawer is clever enough to know that this is risky. He wants to suggest the profound change that comes over Marian/Alice when she lands in France, to show how everything that went before is overthrown by the excitement and danger of her life as a secret agent. The novel switches from past to present tense at this juncture and the quietly devastating ending turns on the Marian/Alice confusion. Yet names are funny things, and this conceit of nomenclature makes the reading of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward book more difficult and interesting. It forces us to look closely at the way that characters are created in novels and to think about our own role, as readers, in the construction of these simulacra of real people.

Mawer’s previous, Booker-shortlisted novel, The Glass Room (2009), told a sweeping tale of wartime Europe. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky picks up where that novel left off, with a well-drawn heroine (Marian’s voice owes much to Liesel Landauer), beautifully lyrical passages (particularly its descriptions of parachute jumps) and a keen eye for period detail. It is a fine example of that most crowd-pleasing of genres – the literary spy thriller – but, as one would expect from a writer of Mawer’s class, it transcends that genre in its depth, subtlety and style.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide