The sequel novel to the Man Booker shortlisted The Girl who Fell from the Sky, about Second World War agent Marian Sutro. Previously Marian had been trained as an agent and then parachuted into wartime France, where she coordinated resistance work and eventually engineered the escape of a nuclear physicist. The earlier book ended on a knife-edge, as Marian was arrested by the Germans at a railway station.
This latest book resumes Marian’s story in the bleak post-war years. This time, rather than the story being told directly by Marian, it is narrated by Sam, a boy whom she met as a 12 year old in 1945, and then encounters again as a young adoring adult. We begin the book with him meeting her 50 years later, and then jump backwards and forwards, from the war years when Marian endured a concentration camp, to her escape and then subsequent life in London. She wishes for nothing more than to forget her memories, while everyone else is both intrigued and awestruck by what she did and what she suffered. Old friends, war trials and even her parents are all reminders. We jump about in time, and because the jumps are only small it is easy to lose track of the various passages of time, although this is not vital to the enjoyment of the story.
Marian’s reactions are very authentic. She does not want the MBE from the English or the Croix de Guerre from the French. She wants only to forget the horrors she has suffered. I enjoyed Marian’s character, she is real and authentic, turning into the sort of aging parent or aunt we would all love to have, full of secrets and wonderful stories. She has a series of lovers that began with the briefest of wartime encounters and end with long running affairs. She knows what she wants but can never quite reach the happiness she deserves.
The passage of time sees Marian shift from wartime agent out-running Germans, to cold war spy evading Russians. She never loses the ability to evade the people who try to follow her with a quick change of overcoat and a leap through the closing doors of tube trains. There is a very nice motif, called kriespiel, a German word that means war game, but which here is a variant of chess where neither player can see the pieces of the other player, with all the positions known only to a referee. This is elegantly used for the world of the spy, always trying to second-guess their opponent and never knowing how much the other side knows.
The story hurries along, never dropping in pace, and always rushing us closer to the final truths. I think Mawer’s first tale of Marian Sutro was more successful, but I will miss her now we have finished with her story.