Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code name Verity‘Verity’ is a young Scottish woman, who, shot down over Occupied France, winds up in the hands of the Gestapo. Trapped in the basement of a once-luxurious hotel, her fate is bleak – she knows they will shoot her after extracting every possible scrap of information from her, by dint of torture and deprivation. And if she does escape, it is more than likely she will be shot for collaboration. But who is she?

At first, she delays the inevitable, bargaining for pen and paper to write down what she knows.  As days go by, the story unfolds of her friendship with Maddie, a pilot, and the events that bring them to work for the British Government’s Special Operations Executive. Verity’s true identity is revealed to the reader in piecemeal fashion, plausibly building up a picture of an exceptional character, whose talents for language and coolness under pressure are perfect for the job.

As the days go on, Verity learns more about the nature of her captors, the coldly Orwellian Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, and his assistant, Anna Engels. Anna develops some sympathy for her prisoner, but is helpless to stop the systematic brutality inflicted on her. Von Linden is an entirely more disturbing entity: in truly chilling fashion, Verity likens his attempts to get the truth from her to the same impersonal interest he might take in dismantling a radio set. He, on the other hand, thinks she is broken and compliant. Is she?

When Maddie eventually tracks Verity down with the help of members of the local Resistance, a daring raid on the prison is planned. But before it’s carried out, a devastating event takes place, altering their friendship irrevocably.

I read this book in one sitting. At its heart is a small cast of complex characters involved in a ripper of an old-fashioned spy story where no-one really speaks the truth to anyone else.  Despite the at times exhaustive technical detail, it is a total page turner.

Given some of the content, this book could just as easily be a book for adults as for young adult readers. There are scenes of torture, told in a matter-of-fact way quite horrifying in its simplicity, that may take this out of the realm of younger readers, although some may not grasp the extent of the pain inferred in the description. There are also some complicated relationships – between prisoner and captors, between supposed allies, between leaders and their subordinates – which aren’t always easily explained.

At the heart  of the book is an enduring friendship between two young women whose ages are slightly obscure – my best estimate would be early twenties at the oldest –  who are prepared to sacrifice anything for each other. Unlike many books aimed at teenage readers, there is no external romance to dilute the intensity of this friendship – it’s mentioned that Maddie ‘doesn’t like men’,  although this is not elaborated on.

The other central mystery surrounds the information that Verity has produced. What effect will it have? Can she be trusted? Again, there is vague information, and much for the careful reader to grasp between the lines.

Just as in Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray trilogy, there’s a thoroughly researched background of wartime existence. Whether it’s the SOE operations barracks in England or the Resistance cell in France, it’s all so ‘real’ that the author has added a slightly tongue-in-cheek note at the end stating that she hasn’t broken the Official Secrets Act – the book is fiction.

There’s special delight for aircraft enthusiasts in the wealth of research behind the hugely exciting scenes of flight and combat. The reader can visualise the cramped and uncomfortable interiors of the planes. There’s such attention to the finer details of the whole process of flight and communication, and Maddie’s terse account of bringing her plane down is just one example of the authentically economic language of the professional pilot. As is the black humour employed at times such as when Maddie’s plane is nearly shot down by their own anti aircraft gunners. It was little surprise to find out in the author’s notes that she is a pilot herself.

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