I'm always interested in why certain writers grab you, and refuse to put you down. With some it's understandable - you have a passion for elves and orcs, then Tolkien's going to be the one for you; you like murder of the genteel variety, you're going to love Agatha Christie, while any animal lover with a sense of humour is going to be wowed by James Heriot. But what about those other authors? Those who refuse to be put in a box, where every novel is completely different, you never know what to expect but every read is compulsive.

I feel like this about Simon Mawer. I had previously read his The Fall, a tale about mountaineering, then there was The Gospel of Judas, a "true" account of the story of Jesus from an unlikely source, but is it what it claims to be? My latest read is The girl who fell from the sky, a story of wartime heroism in occupied France blending history seamlessly with fiction.

This is a favourite theme of mine, I've read probably hundreds of books on the French Resistance, and SOE in France, so The Girl touched on many familiar themes including the break-up of the Prosper Circuit in Paris, and its repercussions. Where Girl differs from other tales such as Charlotte Gray is that it's a much bleaker examination of the life of someone serving in the French Resistance, That's not to say that you don't get the spirit of camaraderie or the excitement of the work, but you also get to see the brevity of an agent's life, the constant fear of betrayal, and the possibility of betrayal from unexpected sources.

I enjoyed Mawer's portrayal of his heroine, Marian Sutro, caught up in her love for France and atomic physicist, Clement; but confused by the changing loyalties of those around her, and her own sudden leap into adulthood. This novel works on so many levels; it's a clever thriller in the style of Eric Ambler of Alan Furst, it's a love story, and a well done fictional re-telling of the wartime work of the Special Operations Executive. The only thing I wish, was that there had been a preface or some notes detailing the history behind the novel. As an SOE nerd, I think I was fairly sure of what was history and what was fiction, but for someone without that background I think it would have made the novel even more compelling.

When novels are good, especially when they're firmly based on reality, they can give you a sense of that reality even better than the history books. This is what Mawer does supremely well, the scent of betrayal, the terror of capture, the hardships of living a life that is not your own encases the reader. A superb read.


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