Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Cover image

Publisher: Hyperion
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 1-4231-5219-0
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 339

Buy at Powell's Books

I don't read very much historical fiction, and I mostly avoid historical fiction from the 20th century. I'm particularly uninterested in reading about Nazis after the saturation programming in places like the History Channel and the number of alternative histories that involve them. I've read enough about World War II to last me a lifetime, and I also avoid books about people being tortured. When Code Name Verity showed up in reviews I read, I was therefore rather dubious: a book set during World War II featuring someone being tortured by Nazis seemed unlikely to appeal to me. But after two stellar reviews (one no longer availble) from reviewers who don't give out top marks easily, I bought a copy with some trepidation.

That was one of the best decisions that I've ever made.

This is the sort of book that is severely hurt by spoilers. In a moment, I'm going to attempt the impossible dance of giving you a feeling for the book and why I love it so much without spoiling anything. But if you trust my taste in books, let me give you a short warning, and then I suggest you stop reading this review and just go read the book. I avoided as much information about it as possible before reading it and never regretted it.

The short warning: This is a book that hurts. lightreads describes it as searing. I think that's a very good term. It's not that it's gruesome; there is torture, but most of it happens off-camera and the focus is on emotional reactions rather than physical description. But the story sneaks up on you with sudden flashes of insight, and parts of it are a gut punch. It's the kind of book that had me in tears for a quarter of the book. It's the kind of book that nearly has me in tears remembering it to write this review.

So, you may want to save this one until you are in the mood for that kind of book. But, that warning aside, Code Name Verity is unspeakably brilliant. This is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. I will try to explain more, but if your tastes mostly align with mine, just stop here and go read it.

I AM A COWARD.

That's how Code Name Verity starts: the words of a captured female British agent in Nazi-occupied France. The book opens near the end of her interrogation (and torture). The important information has already been discussed, and now she's likely destined to be executed. For the last set of wireless codes, she's bought herself paper and two weeks to write, and is expected to record everything that she remembers about the British war effort. The pages of this book are that writing (quite literally in the frontpiece and part of the cover, which are beautifully designed). The way she chooses to approach that task is to tell a story about the person whose ID she had when she was captured, a story that becomes the recounting of how she ended up where she is.

That story is the heart and soul of this book. It's about the war, yes, and about British operations during the war. But it's a story about airplanes, too, and about the Air Transport Auxiliary, and about women finding a place in the war (with just a bit of a fictional push, detailed by the author in an afterword, although not quite as much of one as you might expect). And it's a story of a friendship, an amazing friendship of two women who would have never met each other if it weren't for the war and its leveling and transcending of normal social separations. It's a story about a friendship of opposites, about two people who find ways to support each other, about two people who see the best in each other. This is quite possibly the best novel about a friendship that I've ever read.

This story, by itself, is wonderful. The tone starts light and irreverant, with an undertone of complex despair and defiance that's hard to analyze. One wonders where it's going and whether any of this is relevant, and then it slowly draws in the reader and becomes utterly compelling.

But that's only the start of what this book has in store. Wein does some amazing structural things here that turn and broaden and transform, things that absolutely should not be spoiled because experiencing them without advance knowledge is a breathtaking reading experience. And all the parts play off against each other with a confidence that lets Wein understate and even hint at deeper emotions and be completely confident that the reader is right where she wants them to be. It's not a one-trick book, nor is it one that's going to lose you in the structure, but it's a book that opens up layers as you read it and tempts you re-read it immediately with new eyes once you finish it. Except it hurts so much that re-reading it immediately might be more than your heart can take.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of this book is the way it hits its emotional notes. It is a masterpiece of showing rather than telling. Wein undersells the emotions in exactly the right way to make them stronger and more effective, avoiding, in the process, multiple traps that I've rarely seen avoided. The ending is absolutely note-perfect to everything that's happened before in a way that I thought, five pages from the end, was going to be impossible to pull off, and gets even better the more that one thinks about it. And the whole book is like that.

It's been a month and a half since I read this book, in part because I wasn't sure how to write this review, and I did not, in fact, manage to finish writing it without crying. If I didn't have to be on a train in eight hours from when I'm writing this (a few days before I post it), I'd start reading it again right now. I can't talk about most of the things that make it amazing with anyone who hasn't read it, but it really is that good.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21