At first glance, Simon Mawer’s ninth novel seems a surprising change of pace. In previous books , including “Mendel’s Dwarf” and “The Glass Room” (long - and short-listed , respectively, for the Man Booker Prize ), Mawer braided together past and present in narratives that ranged over decades to encompass an abundance of topics, from tangled family relations to religious faith and political repression. “Trapeze,” by contrast, is a stark, focused adventure. It moves swiftly from Marian Sutro ’s recruitment as an undercover operative during World War II through her training and her dangerous mission in France to a cliffhanging climax in a train station that ought to have a neon sign flashing “Sequel This Way.”
But don’t dismiss “Trapeze” as a highbrow’s lunge for the commercial brass ring. Although narrower in scope than Mawer’s earlier work, it is no less rich and provocative. And in Marian he has created a marvelous heroine, called by circumstance to a life she was born for.
She’s the daughter of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman, raised in Geneva and completely bilingual. That’s why a man with the “Inter-Services Research Bureau” asks Marian to volunteer for work in which her chances of survival are, he estimates, “about fifty-fifty.” His colleagues are concerned about her youth, but she does well in training, learning to use firearms and explosives, operate a clandestine wireless and encrypt messages. Her tendency to ask insubordinate questions and her unseemly levity about the bureau’s secretive ways indicate a spirit that serves her well on her practice mission in Bristol.
“She played the game with gusto,” Mawer writes, “knowing that one day it might not be a game any longer.” We see her daring attitude when she encounters Benoit, a handsome French refugee, in a London bar. They meet again during training, and she deliberately loses her virginity to him before they parachute together into southwestern France. He can’t understand why Marian is so cavalier about this; she can’t be bothered with his bruised ego.
Marian’s second assignment is instigated by her brother, Ned, a physicist. He knows she still nurses a crush on Clement Pelletier, a French scientist and family friend who remained in Paris after the Germans invaded. And he believes she can persuade Clement to join his colleagues working at Cambridge on a new kind of bomb that could win the war for the Allies. It sounds like science fiction to Marian, but she secretly welcomes the chance to rewrite her personal history by appearing to Clement as a dashing secret agent, no longer a blushing schoolgirl.
From the moment she bounds up from her parachute landing, thinking, “How will anything, ever again, be as exciting as this?” it’s clear that she will be an exceptional agent. Mawer makes cogent use of her checklist of safeguards — always have an escape route, never approach a rendezvous directly — to show how naturally Marian adapts to a world of deceit and disguise that frees her to be whoever she wants. “Create yourself a cover for every eventuality,” she thinks. “Be real to yourself. Live the person you are pretending to be.” It’s the ideal stance, not just for a covert operative, but for a young adult who doesn’t yet know who she really is.
It’s what she does that’s important in occupied France. Dispatched to Paris with replacement parts for a wireless set that has stopped transmitting, Marian learns that the Germans have broken up the clandestine network she was counting on to help her get Clement to England. She takes refuge with the scientist, who’s astonished to find the adoring teenager he knew transformed into a resourceful woman setting up a wireless on his roof. Readers who have seen her bluff her way through a checkpoint and gun down two men when cornered will not share his bemusement, nor will they be startled by the final decision that leads Marian to the novel’s brutally abrupt denouement.
Marian’s actions and emotions tell us everything we need to know about the reasons for that decision, and the advance proofs sent to reviewers contained no further elaboration. Unfortunately, Mawer added last-minute revisions to the published book to make her motives more explicit. But these additions don’t suit the spare style of his narrative, which re-creates the tense rhythms and in-the-moment zeitgeist of wartime, when people seldom have the luxury of expatiation. It’s a small fault in an otherwise skillfully and intelligently executed thriller, but it suggests that writers are often wise to stick to their original intentions.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday evening, Simon Mawer will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC.