It’s the midst of the Second World War. Julie, a spy for the British war effort, has been captured by the Germans. After days of torture, she agrees to tell them everything she knows. She has a pen and paper, a time limit and nothing left to lose.
Julie’s story starts and ends with Maddie, the talented pilot who flew her to Nazi occupied France in the first place. She’s also Julie’s best friend.
Julie doesn’t even know whether she’s still alive.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is one of those YA staples that I have been meaning to get around to forever. I think the main reason I ignored this book for so long was to avoid my feelings of guilt around the fact that I never really listened during history class.
As an 11-14 year old (I dropped history pretty early on) I was in the it happened AGES ago WHY do I need to know? camp. To be totally honest, until I started studying for my GCSEs and realised that the whole thing was starting to matter, I was not a very good student.
As such, whenever I saw Code Name Verity or listened to reviewers go on about its greatness, I would be reminded of my apathetic tween-dom, and rather than getting excited about reading, I would cringe.
While there were some sections of the book that I found a little slow – and I’ll get more into that later – overall I found Code Name Verity a highly engaging book, and it’s one that I think would have made me more excited for my history lessons (were it not for the fact that this book came out in 2012, when I was just starting university, far too late. Oh well).
The book opens with our protagonist, Julie, in a terrible situation. After landing on France, she was pretty much instantly caught by the Nazis after looking the wrong way when crossing the road. She was almost run over and clearly not a local. That aroused some serious suspicion, and it didn’t take long for the Nazis to figure out that she was a spy. I found the circumstances of her capture a little disappointing. Julie proves throughout the book that she is a smart and resourceful person – that’s how she goes from being a radio operator to one of the key spies of the British War effort in only a couple of years – so I found this really quite careless mistake to be out of character for her.
But, moving on from that, I think that Elizabeth Wein did a really great job of building an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty throughout. Julie is living her worst nightmare. She has been locked up and routinely tortured. She is exhausted, hurt and terrified. Wein builds the tension by having Julie allude to, rather than fully address what she has suffered. We have, at least at the beginning, only the vaguest idea of her captors, but their presence is overwhelming. As the book goes on and the image of Julie’s torturers becomes more solid, the apathy many of them display becomes truly haunting. Whenever someone shows reluctance to hurting her, it is more out of lethargy than human decency, and there is a starkness to that lack of humanity that is almost more upsetting than the torture we know these people are capable of inflicting. Almost.
Equally as creepy is the almost friendly relationship Julie builds with Von Linden, the head of her prison and her main interrogator. He seems to see something in her that appeals to his personhood, and stands in her cell discussing German literature even as he threatens to cover her body in petrol and set her on fire should she ever misbehave.
While the majority of Julie’s story focusses on the British war effort, and the secrets she is sharing with the Germans, in brief moments she sketches a detailed picture of her life in captivity.
Julie’s story totally engaged me. It was only when I got to the final third of the book, when Maddie took over narration that everything started to drag. While I really enjoyed seeing Julie from her perspective, and learning of some of her sneakier antics (which I won’t get into, cause spoilers), there was something about Maddie that I just couldn’t connect to in the same way. Maddie’s story involves a lot of waiting around – to get information about Julie, to get out of France, etc – and whenever the plot was detailing her life rather than studying Julie’s, I just wasn’t as interested. Unless her story was interacting with Julie’s plight, the novel just lost the stakes that had carried me through the first couple hundred pages. Plus Maddie kept going on about how she could get court marshalled for writing everything down, and it just got annoying after a while.
But, like I said before, overall, this is a great book. It’s an interesting look at the war from the perspective of women, who at that time had previously non-existent opportunities to rise of positions of power and importance within the British military. It really sucks that as soon as the war ended they were shoved back into the kitchen and shouted at until they tied their aprons on.
This is not an easy read. Julie and Maddie’s story is full of love, excitement, terror and, ultimately, heartbreak. It tells that often sighted story that the war was sort of an adventure until it really, really wasn’t.