Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.
Today I’m reviewing Tightrope (Marian Sutro #2) by Simon Mawer, published in 2015. It’s my book for the March theme (And The Award Goes To…) of The BookBum Club on Goodreads, run by the lovely Zuky, as it won The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2016.
About the Book
As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutro, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, she has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, but at what cost?
Returned to an England she barely knows and a post-war world she doesn’t understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the monstrosities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mysterious Major Fawley, the man who hijacked her wartime mission to Paris, emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War, she sees a way to make amends for the past and at the same time to find the identity that has never been hers.
A novel of divided loyalties and mixed motives, Tightrope is the complex and enigmatic story of a woman whose search for personal identity and fulfillment leads her to shocking choices.
Format: Hardcover (408 pp.) Publisher: Little, Brown
Published: 4th June 2015 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find Tightrope on Goodreads
Based on the book description, I was anticipating an enthralling Cold War spy story in the manner of John Le Carré and I certainly got that in the final third of the book. What I wasn’t expecting was such a devastating portrait of the lasting impact of their experiences on those who, like Marian, performed undercover roles in the Second World War.
Our narrator is Sam, who first encounters Marian when he is a child (as a friend of his mother), later when he is an impressionable teenager and finally when he is an adult but still slightly in thrall to her. Marian’s story, as presented to the reader, is part her testimony, part Sam’s first-hand experience, part evidence he has gleaned from official files and part his recreation of how he imagines events may have taken place. The reader is never entirely sure which. Of course, part of Marian’s undercover role involved presenting herself as someone she wasn’t, living an acquired identity, never really being herself. ‘That was the problem with words – they nailed the thought down, made it explicit, fixed it, crucified it on the cross of exact meaning. But life has no exact meanings, only shades of meaning, hints, versions and contradictions, s confusion of loves and hates, of motives and desires.’ What is the true story?
The author convincingly portrays Marian’s difficulty in adjusting to ‘normal’ life and overcoming the psychological, physical and emotional scars she bears as a result of her terrible experiences: arrest, interrogation, torture and, ultimately, confinement in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Marian feels a sense of dislocation from other people. ‘It was just indifference, a sensation of estrangement from the ordinary matters of human contact. Conversation with anyone felt like trying to talk to people in a foreign language when you only have a fraction of the vocabulary at your disposal and half the grammar.’ It is as if a yawning gulf separates her from the rest of humanity: ‘And she felt something strange, the sensation of uniqueness. It wasn’t a good feeling, just one of separation’.
It’s not just Marian who has been changed by the war. The author gives us an evocative and comprehensive picture of the impact of the war on people, places, geopolitics, political and philosophical argument, technology and much else. Even small things, like the way people interact:
‘“Where are you from, then?” the barman asked.
No stranger ever asked a question like that last time she was in the city. Questions drew you into other people’s stories, got you involved, got you into trouble. Now no one cared.’
Marian and her brother, Ned, are appalled by the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the prospect of the United States developing the technology still further. In particular, Marian is plagued by guilt that her actions during the war might unwittingly contribute to a repetition of the horrors she has already witnessed, but multiplied a hundredfold. This guilt propels Marian down a path of secrets, lies and betrayal that will require the use of all the skills and tradecraft she acquired in preparation for her wartime exploits. Like how to fashion a weapon out of what’s to hand, how to tell if you’re being followed and how to shake off your followers. It will put her in danger and make her question who, if anyone, she can trust so that carefully planning each small move, each sentence uttered, becomes critical.
‘She waited a moment, looking at him. And then she made her move. It felt like walking a tightrope, feeling the balance, knowing that a slight shift either side might be fatal. She reached her foot forward and poised to transfer her weight onto it, feeling the rope wobbling. No safety net.’
I loved Tightrope. I was completely drawn into Marian’s story although the romantic in me would have liked a slightly different outcome for her and the man who becomes such an important part of her life. However, the path the author chose for her was admittedly more true to her character. I haven’t read the first book in the series, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (published under the title Trapeze in the United States), so I don’t have the benefit of knowing how much of this book repeats events from the earlier one. What I do know is that Tightrope works brilliantly as a standalone read and from the very beginning I got that comforting feeling that I was in the hands of a skilled writer and accomplished storyteller.
In three words: Insightful, powerful, moving
Try something similar…Nucleus (Tom Wilde #2) by Rory Clements (click here to read my review)
About the Author
Simon Mawer is a British author of ten novels and two non-fiction books. The Glass Room, published by Little, Brown in January 2009, was on the Man Booker shortlist. His current novel is entitled Tightrope. The UK paperback and the e-book are out now. The US edition was published in November 2015.
He currently lives in Italy.
Connect with Simon