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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