Code Name Verity is an absolutely exceptional piece of storytelling; Elizabeth Wein has worked a thing of magic. Not only does it have a wonderfully constructed plotline, it brings alive the smells, tastes and sounds of wartime Britain, and reminds me of the unrivalled and uncommon courage of those who served their country at this time.
This is the story of two young women who, if not for the Second World War, would most probably have never met, and is told in two parts: Verity’s tale, and then Maddie’s tale. It is France, 1943, and Verity, after an infuriatingly simple cultural blunder, has been caught by the Gestapo. It is apparent from the beginning that she has been tortured and that what we are reading is her written confession to her captors, a promise to provide information on the British war effort to appease her German interrogator and hopefully bring some improvement to her living conditions. The story that she tells, though, is one of friendship, her friendship with Maddie, the pilot who brought her to France, and their story up until this moment in time.
Verity begins by informing us that she is a coward, that she has made a deal with the Germans, and we must believe that she is a traitor, that she is giving away British secrets. But is she? As the story progresses I found myself asking, What is truth? Verity herself shows through her words how good she is at acting, at pretending, and I started to wonder, how much are the two sides playing a game? How real are the pictures of Maddie’s burnt-out plane that the German interrogator shows her? How much of Verity’s story is true and how much is a ‘fudging’ to give her captors what they think they want to know? In writing terms, her account is what we would call unreliable: because it is written for a purpose, and that purpose is not to tell a happy story, but to provide her interrogators with information. There are lots of things about Verity’s story that begin to raise questions as you read on: how much humanity does the interrogator, who hides it so well, really have? What do the underlined sentences mean, and who has underlined them? And what about what Verity doesn’t tell us? Who’s to say what happens that she choses not to put into words?
In part two, Maddie’s story gradually unravels these conundrums and quietly, quietly shows us another side of the story, one that the Germans, the ones who extracted the above account from Verity, are not privy to. It is just brilliantly written and utterly gripping, but what stood out strongest for me, what has remained with me after I put the book down for the last time, are the ordinary and extraordinary acts of courage and heroism that these two women perform. There are real people who did these exact things, or at least very similar things, who endured the things these women endured and made the choices they did without blinking, without thinking, but just knowing it was what had to be done. This picture of war, of the places where it leads us – good and bad, physical and mental – is one that, sitting in my dry, well-heated, soft and comfortable home, I am apt to forget. Verity and Maddie’s determination is astounding.
“Every fresh broken horror here is something I just DIDN’T UNDERSTAND until I came here,” Maddie tells us (pg. 352).
Code Name Verity questions what is truth, honor, betrayal. It questions how far a person is willing to go to save the person they love – and even a person they don’t even know. Towards the beginning of her story, Verity recounts a day when she and Maddie went on an epic bike ride during which they listed their fears, all of which sound perfectly normal and reasonable to my ears, but as their experiences and knowledge of the world take on greater clarity, these fears change and warp, becoming things they are experiencing now or know they will have to face in the near future, causing their earlier worries to feel petty and to slip aimlessly into the background. And yet… And yet both of them face their new fears almost wordlessly, head-on, and with courage that no-one, until they are there, in the den, will know they possess.
I can’t begin to describe the layers, the hints and the games that Elizabeth Wein has written into this book without completely giving away the storyline or further rendering the experience of actually reading this book and figuring it out as you go along pointless. And so I say only this: read it. You will not be disappointed, it is as extraordinary as its characters.