Captured Scottish spy code name ‘Verity’ has made a deal. Instead of being tortured for wireless codes, she will volunteer them in exchange for her clothing. With the final code she negotiated two weeks of time and as much creamy, embossed stationary as she needs to tell SS Hauptsturmführer von Linden everything she knows about the British War Effort. In actuality Verity doesn’t know anything about the air invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, but she does know a few aircraft types, and will lie her way through the confession. Her friend Maddie is a pilot, the one who flew (and crashed) her into France in a Lysander. A strong woman and talented pilot herself, Maddie has secrets of her own, secrets that forge a successful partnership and deep friendship with Verity that just may survive the war.
It’s hard to know how to start describing my experience with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. After it started receiving glowing reviews from my closest book friends, I knew picking it up would be inevitable. Janice’s “tragic, but moving” stamp of strong approval convinced me to buy the book immediately from international bookseller The Book Depository in March, ahead of the US release date in May. I needed both the pretty UK edition and the book itself as soon as possible. But after the book arrived, I hesitated. After spending a considerate amount of time studying the period, visiting concentration camps, hearing the experiences of native Germans, and attending graphic and comprehensive Holocaust exhibitions during my graduate program in Europe, reading World War II set fiction or non-fiction (with rare exceptions) have no longer appealed to me. But after reading more I realized that Code Name Verity focused on the women pilots and spies of WWII. Additionally, it’s no secret that a box of tissues is required, and I was waiting for the cathartic, sobbing mood to strike. By June, after the six starred reviews from US publishers and numerous other accolades had poured in, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. My reading slate seemed clean, so I dived in, and my reaction surprised me.
I wanted to love Code Name Verity, and I especially didn’t want to let any of its most ardent fans down by being disappointed in it. I liked many aspects of this perhaps overly-ambitious novel, even things that other reviewers criticized. Verity is an incredibly unreliable narrator, which interested me in the beginning. In our introduction to Verity, we are predisposed to dislike her for her cowardice alone. Who would have the nerve to strike a deal with a SS officer and tell the tale? Verity is presented as the anti-heroine from the start, and I was relieved that my opinion of her could only go up from there. I liked Maddie from Verity’s description “she can navigate by the stars.” I am not hugely into historical fiction, but I actually found the aircraft history fascinating. Knowing a little about the extensive research that went into the novel, which started out as a portrait of an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, I appreciated seeing Maddie as a conglomeration of all women pilots of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and their limitations in both aviation training and service. In the first part of the novel, the perspective switches constantly mid-chapter between Verity, Maddie, and Queenie (also third person), and the unknowns fall together slowly, in a meandering, piece-meal way. For me, Code Name Verity shines brightest in part two, when the narrative switches from Verity’s undependable POV and Maddie’s third person to Maddie’s perspective. Readers who prefer character-driven stories will find themselves most at home here, when they can finally step into Maddie’s shoes and become intimately acquainted with her on her own terms. The first problem with this is that Maddie’s perspective begins more than 270 pages into the book. Secondly, the larger problem with this plot structure and alternating perspective style is that I always felt at arm’s length from both Verity and Queenie. Being so far removed from their points-of-view, I could never connect with either of them personally or buy into Verity’s life-changing friendship with Maddie. Unfortunately the worst result is that as the tragic, tear-jerking end neared, instead of being emotionally affected, I was left shocked, cold, and disgusted by the atrocities of war in general, and how after all the above-mentioned experiences of the Holocaust I still could never have guessed (as I tried the majority of the novel to do) the horrific death of one of the main characters. Instead of tears, I felt nothing. I still finished the book – there are some beautifully written passages in the conclusion – and many of the pieces of the mystery come together brilliantly in the end. But nothing could change the fact that I wasn’t invested in the characters, which means that ultimately I just didn’t care. I wanted to so badly, and explaining why it didn’t has been cathartic in itself, but I think it’s time that Code Name Verity and I move on. As I am in the minority, please see the positive reviews below. Elizabeth Wein’s lauded novel just might be for you.
Bunbury in the Stacks review – “Code Name Verity was a magnificently written story that managed to exceed my expectations, while simultaneously not meeting them whatsoever.”
Chachic’s Book Nook review – “By the time you’re through with this book, your heart will ache for both characters and you’d want to squeeze yourself into the story just so you can hug them.”
Janicu’s Book Blog review – “I was a jumble of conflicting feelings at the end of the book, but the last lingering one was good and cathartic. I feel so proud of these characters somehow.”
See Michelle Read review – “I can’t say it enough, this book blew me away. I simply cannot get the story out of my head.”
The Book Geek review – “All I really want is for a book to rouse some passion in me, whether it be excitement, sadness, anger even… I felt nothing.”
The Reclusive Reader review – “Code Name Verity wasn’t an easy book to read … I struggled with it because the writing was incredibly dense and for the most part, not very engaging.”