During World War II, 39 British women were recruited and trained to work in Nazi-occupied France, providing intelligence and supporting the local resistance movement. Of these, only 26 survived; 12 were murdered following capture by the Germans and one died from meningitis.
The Girl who Fell from the Sky traces the war-time experience of Marian Sutro, a fictional member of that group who is recruited from the Women’s Air Auxiliary Force.
The novel begins as Marian is parachuted into France to begin her mission with a Resistance cell in the south. It then backtracks to her training in spycraft, weaponry and self-preservation techniques as a result of which she becomes a highly trained killer. Her official mission is to act as a courier but she is given an additional and highly secret assignment: to track down Clement Pelletier, an old family friend living in Paris, and persuade him to escape to England. The future of the war could depend on whether she succeeds for Clement is a leading authority on nuclear physics and the Allies need his help to develop an atomic weapon before the Germans do.
It’s a story that should make for a compelling novel, particularly when the author is as experienced as Simon Mawer. It should be compelling. But it isn’t. It’s just rather ordinary, particularly when compared to Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Grey which covered similar territory.
It’s not the writing that’s at fault here. It’s smooth and professional. The plot is well controlled and the detail about dead drops; false passports, border controls etc has the ring of authenticity. All the technical elements are there; it’s just that the novel doesn’t sing.
Part of the problem lies in the character of Marian. She is a rather naive girl who constantly thinks of her self as an outsider’ particularly because she doesn’t really understand the science analogies of the games her brother and friends play. Special operations training in the arts of espionage and combat, toughen her up but otherwise she remains rather immature in her view of the world and in her relationships with men. Though intelligent and resourceful she takes foolhardy risks including forcing her brother to reveal top secret information.
As a spy thriller, there is meant to be considerable suspense but the ending felt rather predictable to me though by then I didn’t particularly care one way or another whether Marian’s quest succeeded.