Code Name Verity: A Book I Wanted to Love

I finally — finally! — finished Code Name Verity last night.

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This was a book club read with one of my friends. We have a book club of two people, and it is awesome. We don’t meet in person, or Skype each other — but we have long — long — book discussions via email. It’s a book club of moral support, since we push each other through “need to reads” — e.g. I need to read Proust, please read Swann’s Way with me, so I’m not facing this alone.

And then we do. We read All The Things. It’s great.

Like having a jogging buddy, or a marathon-training partner. That’s what a 2-person book club is like.

We started reading Code Name Verity together ages ago, circa January 3 of this year, and here it is, January 17, and I have finally finished. I blogged about hitting a wall with this book 10 days ago, and shared how I was encouraged to keep reading for “one really great line.” I never found the great line, and neither did my book buddy, though we both read very carefully, looking for it.

I really wanted to love Code Name Verity. I wanted this to be my OMG read of 2015. (I mean, I know it was published in 2012, but still. You know what I mean.)

Here is the author, Elizabeth Wein —

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And here is a picture of a Puss Moth, one of the planes Maddie flies in the novel —

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I couldn’t visualize a Puss Moth the entire time I was reading the novel, so I just thought of the plane they flew in The English Patient, another WWII story, and pictured this plane in my head —

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Which is totally NOT the same plane at all.

Fail. I just fail. I couldn’t visualize any of the aircraft in Code Name Verity.

For instance, here is a Lysander —

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Lysanders were introduced in 1938 and retired in 1946, so this was a WWII-aircraft only.

This is the plane Maddie is flying when she and Verity crash-land in France.

My brain didn’t visualize a plane like this at all. I pictured something a lot bigger, with Verity standing up and moving around boxes tied up in back and stuff. I knew the Puss Moth had to be little, but I thought the Lysander was much larger.

Here’s a picture of some WWII wireless operators

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At least *this* was something my brain could visualize without any narrative description. A bunch of people sitting around boxes covered in knobs and dials and thingy-ma-jigs, wearing headphones and writing stuff down on paper.

Here’s a picture of a WWII USSR sergeant female combat pilot

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And this gal right here could have been Maddie

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The subject of women fighting in wars lends itself to such heavy, heavy doses of beauty and bravery, it’s a wonder that more books like Code Name Verity don’t exist.

Then I remember we live in a world full of ridiculous gender roles and baby evangelism and slut-shaming, and I laugh, shake my head, and say, “What was I thinking?” Code Name Verity is about a female James Bond — and how can we possibly respect masculinity if a woman can be as badass as James Bond?

Spoiler: women can be as badass as James Bond.

News flash to anyone who wants to be aggro about this: Get. Over. It.

So typed up below is my review for Code Name Verity, the book I wanted to love. It’s a long review (sorry about that!) but I wanted to explain my reasoning, since giving only 3 stars to a book about a female James Bond felt like an epic fail on my part.

But books are like music. Some songs work for people, and others don’t. Code Name Verity was just one of those tunes that didn’t move my heart, but this book moved a lot of people a great deal, and I’m still excited to see it being made into a movie. I’ll be there in the theater to see it.

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This was a very difficult novel for me to read, and though it had all the elements of a book I should love — a tale of female friendship and bravery set during WWII — this wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading at all. It feels terrible to have to admit that, and go against the grain of so many rave reviews and awards and gushing praise for this book, so I want to explain as best I can why I felt nothing for either one of these two main characters, and didn’t use up boxes of tissues weeping in delirium by the time I arrived at the end.

I also don’t want to spoil the plot of this novel for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, so I’ll avoid spoilers.

The novel begins with these words, written in memoir-style by the main character, who is a captured female Scottish spy with the code name Verity: “I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.”

The root of my biggest problem with this novel is right there in the opening words — Verity has already made it absolutely clear that she is an unreliable narrator, and that the reader can’t trust a word she is writing. She has been captured by the Gestapo, and is writing a novel about her life while they interrogate her, and Verity tells us that she is giving up lines of code in order to get her clothes back, and avoid the worst forms of torture.

When a narrator tells her reader — which is the Nazi Gestapo reading her novel — that she has “always been good at pretending” and is giving up “sets of wireless of code” in exchange for her clothing, as well as paper and pen to write a novel of her life — well, as far as I was concerned as a reader, this was a recipe for my own personal agony. For the next 200 pages (almost 2/3 of the novel) I knew I was reading a bunch of lies and make-believe, as Verity spun her tale for the Gestapo to read. It aggravated me a lot, since it seemed obvious that of course she would be lying about everything she printed for her torturers to read. I felt frustrated that we never got a break from reading Verity’s novel, so I could have some kind of scope on the extent of her lies and adjust to the story better. The author obviously intended the reader to read the novel twice, as if the reader didn’t already understand that Verity is playing a game of “gotcha” here. Well, I understood that perfectly well on the first page, and 200 pages of “gotcha” made for highly unenjoyable reading.

Why? Because I couldn’t emotionally bond with a main character who was lying to me the whole time. There was no trust between myself and Verity, and that was deadly to me as a reader. Verity also shares several stories she was never even a witness to, stories that only involve her friend Maddie’s life, further shredding any belief I could have that she was telling me something true.

And here is my second-biggest problem with this story: I could never buy into the idea that the Nazi Gestapo would let a captured secret agent spend her hours in captivity writing a NOVEL. Especially since Verity’s novel is full of anecdotal stories about her youth and her family, as well as the coming-of-age history of her friend Maddie, the female pilot who was shot down along with Verity in October 1943, shortly before Verity was captured.

Verity tells us on p.57 and 58 that her interrogators recognize that she is writing a novel, and that they know she is writing about herself in the third person. In her stories, Verity frequently describes herself as extremely beautiful and gifted with extraordinary intelligence. And when she recounts her interactions with her Nazi interrogators, she is amazingly defiant despite her own mutilation and torture, and possesses the same laugh-in-the-face-of-death bravery of James Bond. On p.57, Verity yells at her most brutal interrogator, “I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT.” I’m certain that this is one of the places in her narrative that is absolutely true, which means, not only is Verity actually saying these things, but then she’s recording them for the Gestapo to re-experience while reading her novel, which she peppers with lines like, “YOU STUPID NAZI BASTARDS” (p. 5).

Verity is clearly a superhuman superhero, a Wonder Woman James Bond, and this explains why so many readers love Verity’s character so much. Personally, I couldn’t stomach this main character’s penchant for writing about herself in the third person about how brilliant and gorgeous she is, but to each their own. My issue with reading all of this was: WHY WOULD THE NAZI GESTAPO EVER LET A CAPTURED SPY WRITE A NOVEL? This is late 1943, and the war was going downhill for Germany by late 1943. Things were starting to look bleak. If they had a captured Scottish spy, they would want code, operation details, names, and coordinates. Not stories about a girl’s coming-of-age during the war along with her best friend.

The premise of the Nazi Gestapo allowing Verity to write a novel while she was being tortured for code never made sense to me. There was no justification given for this, other than one interrogator noting on p.57 that Verity is “making use of suspension and foreshadowing” in her tale. Which I suppose was meant to convey that he was enjoying her coming-of-age story so much, he was content to let her keep writing so he could keep reading it.

Um. Ohhhhh–kaaaaayyy.

There is also the fact that Verity is So Extremely Gorgeous that the interrogator might have been utterly charmed by her, and therefore didn’t see her as an object, as an “other” to use, abuse, and dispose of as quickly as possible, and that he allowed her to keep writing a novel because he still saw her as a human being. Even though he is torturing her and other prisoners around her in gruesome ways.

The author’s given explanations of the interrogator being spellbound and charmed by Verity’s novel worked for a great many readers who loved this book. For me, however, they were far too weak to support the level of believability I needed. The idea that the Nazi Gestapo would allow a captured spy to write a novel in late 1943 was not sufficiently justified, and contributed to the agony I felt in knowing I was reading a made-up story about WWII. I already knew Verity was lying nonstop, and the premise of the novel-writing was a flimsy fabrication, not something I could ever realistically believe ever happened.

As a side note to that train of thought — it doesn’t bother me that the author made up many elements of the story — such as the names of airfields and the name of the city in France where Verity was captured — because I expect novels to have that kind of license. But to fail to justify the set-up of the story adequately wasn’t a make-believe element I could be on board with as a reader.

A third major problem I had with the novel involved the fact that “Code Name Verity” is labeled and marketed as a YA (Young Adult) novel. However — Verity tells us on p.8 that Maddie is 16 years old in 1938, which means she is 21 in late 1943 — when Verity and Maddie are shot down, and the events of the story take place. While Verity does pen several anecdotes involving a teenage Maddie, as well as anecdotes involving Verity’s own teenage self, we know that Verity and Maddie are roughly the same age. So here is my issue: these are two young women in their early twenties — and they do NOT classify as YA narrators.

On a personal level, it feels very unjust and wrong that this novel was labeled YA, and won so many prestigious YA awards, when the main characters are outside the publishing demographic for the YA category, which is targeting young people between the ages of 13 and 18.

In a similar vein to this point, I winced at the way Verity makes it clear on p.136 that she hasn’t been raped during her torture and imprisonment. In the context of history, this dismissal of rape felt very false, like I was being coddled as a reader because I was “reading YA.” It’s made clear at the very beginning of the novel that Verity is “giving up code” in order to get her clothes back, and that she is also extremely beautiful. In real life, rape is always the first tool used in war, and quite often used in torture, a violation performed against women as well as men, but especially women. I have many speculations as to why the author made it a point to include a firm dismissal of the possibility of Verity’s rape. Most of my theories center on the author’s portrayal of Verity as a tough-as-nails-badass-female-James-Bond (because James Bond would never be forced to suffer “the indignity” of having his anus violated by one of his torturers) and also this issue of coddling the reader due to the story being classified as YA.

There were two places in the book that read very quickly for me, and gripped my heart. The first involves the death of a young French girl, which Verity records in her novel. I thought that scene was very well done. The second heart-wrenching situation takes place in the final third of the novel, when Maddie takes over as narrator, and is keeping a journal of her war efforts while trapped in France. Maddie describes a raid to try to rescue some prisoners on a bus, and the Nazis start killing people, and then mutilate two men in a very horrific way. My heart ached for those men, because they survive and get loaded back up on the bus.

The point of that scene, however, is to illustrate one of the novel’s main points: how death is humane, and can be viewed as a noble rescue. I don’t disagree with that point, and think it was a good and powerful statement for the novel to make. However, given that theme, the fact that those two men were NOT rescued with a humane death, their mutilation was especially haunting, and especially horrifying to witness. I felt the same way watching those two men as I did watching “12 Years a Slave,” in which Solomon Northup is rescued from Hell, while Patsey remains — very much alive, very much subject to the continued torture and mutilation of her body at the hands of her captors.

I think “Code Name Verity” should have been classified as literary fiction, because I thought this novel demanded a lot from the reader. If I had read this book as a teenager, 80% of this story would have gone over my head. There was SO MUCH inferencing I had to do, both in terms of period detail and cultural knowledge (especially concerning British and Scottish history, their class system, language styles, and military networks), that I could never have made sense of much of this book as a teen. The disjointed storytelling, and the type of prose this book uses, would have been far beyond my reading abilities at 16 or 17.

“Code Name Verity” isn’t written like (the YA novels) “We Were Liars” or “Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” which both display a large amount of poetry in their sentence construction as well as in their use of simile and metaphor. “Code Name Verity” is a bit more like reading Alice Munro, in that Verity’s novel is like a bunch of linked short stories tied together somewhat chronologically — though I think Ms. Munro’s prose displays more of a phonetic poetry in each line than “Code Name Verity” does. The inferencing level is often the same though, which is why I think this novel should have been labeled literary fiction, rather than YA.

“Code Name Verity” dealt with big subjects — war, torture, female spies, female pilots, female friendship — and for that, I give the book 3 stars. I never bonded with either main character though, and reading Verity’s unreliable-narrator-novel was like putting my brain on a cheese grater. This is a book I’m glad I read, so I can understand for myself what all of the fuss is about, and I would never discourage anyone else from reading it, because this book swept up so many major YA awards, and it will be made into a movie. The problems I had with the structure of this book will probably all disappear when it transitions to film, so I look forward to seeing “Code Name Verity” in theaters. Instead of Verity telling me over and over that she is beautiful, I’ll just be able to see her on screen. Instead of all the events in Verity and Maddie’s lives unfolding as backstory, I’ll witness them in real time. And maybe the screenplay will give me a solid explanation as to why the Nazi Gestapo is letting a captured spy pen a novel in late 1943. That would be great.

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