Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Face Value: When I first saw this book reviewed, back in February over at The Book Smugglers, I got really excited, because this is such a Sarah-book. Plus, it had this gorgeous cover, that I couldn’t wait to see on my bookshelves. Isn’t it pretty? I love the color palate, the silhouette, the font. The tagline, “I have told the truth” sends chills down my spine.
But then I got really disappointed because I thought the British release date was the US one, and I had to wait three months for my copy to come in from my local bookstore. And the US cover – well, it leaves a lot to be desired.
I mean, it’s not as bad as it could be, I suppose, and I like the soft texture of the book jacket. But the roped hands clasped together look a little more bondage-y than female pilots and wireless operators, and nothing is suggestive of the period at all. Luckily the book itself is good enough that it still gets to keep that place of honor on the bookshelves.
Does it Break the Slate? Oh. My. God. Yes. The slate is left shattered in a thousand tiny pieces. And not just because our two main characters are fantastic or that this is a book about women breaking boundaries during World War II. It’s also stylistically Slatebreaking, in the fact that this book, at its core, is about female friendship, celebrating that bond in a way that few books have.
Who would we give it to? This is an exciting one because it has potential appeal on a lot of levels. In fact, this book is going to the top of my “YA-Books-To-Give-To-People-Who-Say-They-Don’t-Read-YA” list, because it is so incredibly rich, with complex storytelling and full of literary references. It appeals on the feminist angle, the WWII History angle, the edge-of-your-seat thriller angle and the beautifully rendered characters angle. In fact, let’s be clear. I loved this book. I’m going to give it to everyone.
Review: I have to be honest. I hardly even know how to write this review without giving away unforgiveable details. Usually I’m not too concerned about that, seeing the reviews on this site more as critical essays on a theme than publicity reviews. But with this book, the sharp edge of the reveals was such a great part of the pleasure of reading it, that I want to be careful not to take away from any of that experience for the reader. So I’ll do my best, and try to find a balance of cryptic and informative.
“I AM A COWARD” the book begins. A young female wireless operator has been taken prisoner by Nazi forces because she looked the wrong way while crossing the street in France. After torture, she has agreed to write out her confession, and that’s what we are reading. But its not that simple. She’s giving the terrifying Commander and to tell her story Queenie has to tell the story of her best friend, Maddie, a pilot, and how the war brought the two of them together. Even though they would probably never have interacted if it weren’t for World War, the bond between them is as strong and significant as it would be between any other relationship, romantic, familial or otherwise. They are, she explains, a “sensational team.” And we don’t doubt it for a minute. Together they are braver, cleverer, more devoted, more careful.
“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend” she tells us. And we get it – we get that this friendship, born out of the war, is the most important thing. That as much as Queenie is a collaborator, as much as she is willing to give up, she is loyal to Maddie until the end. It’s unusual to see this kind of story, a war story, a spy story, that is not only about women, but it doesn’t even have a love story at its core. Or if it does, it’s a different kind of love – not romantic or sexual, but friendship that drives it forward. Even if the book weren’t as expertly crafted as it is, I’d be thrilled about that alone.
But there’s more to love about this book. There’s its nail-biting pacing, its literary references, depth of storytelling. And there’s this sense of reading a story that’s very different from one we’ve heard before, even as it covers a time period that has produced hundreds of novels. But this one is different. Queenie is not just a victim, but an active participant in her hopeless situation. And there are tiny details – like the fact that it’s clothing she ultimately gives up her secrets for, that after all the torture she “was prepared to go sleepless and starving and upright for a good while yet if only I didn’t have to do it in my underwear.”
This book had me from the very beginning, and kept me literally gasping out loud as the story unraveled. There’s more I want to talk about, but I can’t – I don’t want to give anything away. But please – when you finish (and after you mop the tears off the pages) – let’s talk about it. I can’t wait to discuss.
Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore