The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions.
Review of Code Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein
by Kay Waddilove
If you have seen the film The Sixth Sense, you may have been tempted at the end, as I was, to sit through the whole thing again in order (spoiler alert here!) to spot the many indications of the presence of dead. My reaction on reaching the last page of Elizabeth Wein’s award-winning novel took me back to that moment, as I flicked through the pages in reverse to unravel the author’s intricate construction of Verity’s account, and identify the multiple clues available to the reader of the true purpose of the eponymous heroine’s confession.
Code Name Verity has been variously described as “an exciting … female adventure story (Guardian), “a tale of espionage” (Times), “rich historical fiction” (Amazon), “a Young Adult title” (Daily Mail), “a novel entirely about female power and female friendship” (New York Times). It is all of those things, but is also a meticulously researched novel that deals unflinchingly with matters such as torture and sadism, once considered entirely unsuitable for a young readership, even those of the chronologically ill-defined YA genre. Most interestingly, in my view, it utilises a (not always successful) split narrative voice and subtle use of the unreliable narrator technique to both engage and stretch the implied reader.
As a Special Operations Executive agent, the multi-named Verity is captured by the Gestapo because she betrays her Britishness by looking in the wrong direction when crossing a French street; like so many other episodes in the book, this incident is based on a true event, and is indicative of the historicity that permeates the novel. Having been tortured, Verity agrees to write an account revealing everything she knows about the British war effort in exchange for slightly better conditions (the return of her clothes, for example), and a stay of execution for two weeks. Or so she tells her interrogators – and, of course, the reader. The first two-thirds of the book is Verity’s account, interspersed with the story of her friendship with Maddie, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who flew her into occupied France. Details of the treatment she has undergone, and that other Gestapo captives are still enduring, are briefly depicted, and, while not dwelt on at length, are unflinchingly described. The attitude of the other prisoners, who despise her as an odious collaborator, and of her two interrogators, who regard her as a traitorous, if useful, source of information, is convincingly portrayed. Yet from the opening paragraph, the text is imbued with subtle hints that Verity’s account may not be all it seems, and that in writing it, she may have motives other than her self-declared cowardice. Her over-arching motive only becomes apparent in the final third of the book during Maddie’s narrative and, as this is a book that really deserves to be read, I will not reveal it here. But skip to the last paragraph if you want a small hint…
As a historical novel Code Name Verity remains true in all essentials to the events it portrays, and Wein has taken care, as she explains in her postscript, to ensure historical accuracy as well as a good story, hoping that “where I fail in accuracy [to] make up for it in plausibility” (447). The book invites the reader into a thoughtful engagement with the text, which seeks, through the narrative strategies, convincing characterisation and careful plotting to present readers with the means to question the events and actions depicted; as with the best historical novels, it is not a fictionalised account, but an attempt to demonstrate that history is a question of perspective, ethics and social politics. The story becomes a way of closely observing human experience and relationships, rather than an adventure tale or an exploration of period and artefacts for their own sake (biro descriptions notwithstanding!). It is also informed by Wein’s ideological and socio-cultural concerns; loyalty and courage are foregrounded and the value of female friendship is emotively expressed: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” (88).
Despite some structural faults, the sophisticated weaving of the plot and the rounded depiction of the main characters – even the SS interrogators are revealed as multi-faceted and self-questioning – earned Code Name Verity a place on the Carnegie shortlist in 2013. The Carnegie Medal is a prestigious award for a book of outstanding literary quality published annually for children and young people. While Code Name Verity did not win, it certainly meets the criteria of a work that “should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.” So I will give (almost) the last word to Theo, an 11-year old student then shadowing the Carnegie Medal at a London comprehensive school:
“I liked how this book was written, with that emotional touch that makes you feel everything that is written. It is almost as if it is your own life that is being tragically ruined so you cannot put the book down. Another thing I liked is how it changes point of view half way through. I found this good because it gives you a new perspective and lets you live through a gripping story again. Also the story was so absolutely moving because if you just think about how these things could have actually happened it just makes it all the more emotional.”
And (if strong-minded, stop reading now) – in The Sixth Sense look for the scenes where there is red in the camera shot; in Code Name Verity watch out for the descriptions of buildings….
 Carnegie Medal criteria at http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie/award_criteria.php
Name: Kay Waddilove, currently researching for a PhD with NCRCL Roehampton
Research Area: Motherhood in populist children’s novels of the 20th century
Path to Roehampton in 195 (!) characters: BA in English Lit & History, MA in Information Science, followed by career in public and school librarianship. Epiphanic discovery that there was A Place to indulge my obsession with children’s books led to an MA at Roehampton in 2008.
Favourite (secret) re-read: I am David by Ann Holm. Still get misty-eyed at the – incredibly unlikely – ending.
Unsung Picture Book: Peace at Last by Jill Murphy. A great read-aloud.
Unsung Young Adult Novel: Dom and Va by John Christopher. An uncomfortable, but thought-provoking depiction of prehistoric human society.
Series edited by Erica Gillingham.