Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Published March 2020 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
Told in interweaving timelines organized around the four code names Nancy used during the war, Code Name Hélène is a spellbinding and moving story of enduring love, remarkable sacrifice and unfaltering resolve that chronicles the true exploits of a woman who deserves to be a household name.
It is 1936 and Nancy Wake is an intrepid Australian expat living in Paris who has bluffed her way into a reporting job for Hearst newspaper when she meets the wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca. No sooner does Henri sweep Nancy off her feet and convince her to become Mrs. Fiocca than the Germans invade France and she takes yet another name: a code name.
As LUCIENNE CARLIER Nancy smuggles people and documents across the border and earns a new nickname from the Gestapo for her remarkable ability to evade capture: THE WHITE MOUSE. With a five million franc bounty on her head, Nancy is forced to escape France and leave Henri behind. When she enters training with the Special Operations Executives in Britain, she is told to use the name HÉLÈNE with her comrades. And finally, with mission in hand, Nancy is airdropped back into France as the deadly MADAM ANDRÉE, where she claims her place as one of the most powerful leaders in the French Resistance, known for her ferocious wit, her signature red lipstick, and her ability to summon weapons straight from the Allied Forces. But no one can protect Nancy if the enemy finds out these four women are one and the same, and the closer to liberation France gets, the more exposed she—and the people she loves—will become.
At the conclusion of this book, Lawhon's Author's Note alerts readers to the fact that Nancy Wake was a real person, that a great deal of this book is based on the facts of her life. But she opens that Note with this: "Readers, beware...If you begin this journey here, your reading experience here, your reading experience will be altered. It will be a bit like watching a magic act after you've learned how the rabbit is smuggled into the hat." I'd offer the same caution. DO NOT look up Nancy Wake before you finish this book. You do not want to know ahead of time what will happen, particularly given that Lawhon has hewed so closely to reality and you don't want to spend any part of the book trying to figure out where the facts have been altered. As Lawhon advises: "...start at the beginning and let the show proceed as planned."
And what a show it is.
Again and again I find myself picking up books about World War II. I keep saying that I'm over World War II books. What more could there be to say that I haven't read yet? And then I find a book about a part of that war that I haven't read about before. Well, I knew about the French Resistance, of course. But I didn't know about an Australian woman who was integral to a part of the Resistance, working with the British.
The book opens with Nancy (as Helene) parachuting into France and from there Lawhon blends Nancy's story as a resistance fighter in 1944 with the history of the events that brought her to that point from 1936. It's a dual narrative that works exceedingly well, as Nancy's past works its way to that night when she parachuted her way back into France. Lawhon does a marvelous job of building the tensions in both narratives, of creating characters that the reader cares about, and of engaging all of the reader's senses.
Nancy Wake is an amazing characters; it's even more amazing to realize that she was a real woman. Lawhon's incredible research has allowed her to bring the real Nancy's story come to life in all of its glamour, ugliness, terror, and passion. I was wrapped up in it almost from the beginning. The only fault that I found in the book was that the ending dragged a bit for me but that was a small complaint in a book that I very much enjoyed otherwise.My favorite part? That's a tie. I adored Nancy's and Henri's love story. But then I also loved Nancy putting on her lipstick and being the boss lady.
I highly recommend it, although I would forewarn readers that there are some very graphic scenes, as you might expect in a book about war.