Given the popularity of historical fiction set in wartime Europe (Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, John Lawton ) I expected an enthusiastic reception for Simon Mawer’s follow up to his splendid novel The Glass Room entitled in the US, Trapeze (Other Press). Set mostly in Nazi occupied France)The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, aka Trapeze entwines the techniques of spy craft with the lethal risks of the enterprise as young Swiss expatriate Maria Sutro is recruited for espionage training with the end being parachuted into France to work with various networks (circuits) of the Resistance. Mawer, an able writer with eight novels under his belt, paints the atmospherics with accuracy and fashions a plot that concludes with a unforeseen if not quite surprising ending.
Here’s an excerpt:
Chapter One – Trapeze
She’s sitting in the fuselage, trussed like a piece of baggage, battered by noise. Half an hour earlier they manhandled her up through the door because she was too encumbered with her parachute to climb the ladder unassisted; now she is just there, with the sound drumming on her ears, and the inadequate light and the hard metal and packages all around her.
If only she could sleep, like Benoit. He’s sitting opposite, his eyes closed and his head rocking with the movement of the machine. Like a passenger on a train. It’s one of the most infuriating things about him, his ability to sleep wherever and whenever he pleases.
The dispatcher – young, gauche, prominent Adam’s apple and slicked hair – stumbles towards her through the racket. He seems a kind of Charon, accompanying the souls of the dead towards Hades. Her father would love that thought. His classical allusions. “Illusions”, she always called them. The airman grins ghoulishly at her and bends to open the hatch in the floor, releasing night and cold into the fuselage like water rushing in from a sprung leak. Looking down she can see the huddled buildings of a town sliding beneath, smudged with cloud and lit by the moon, a mysterious seabed over which their craft floats. Benoit opens one eye to see what’s going on, gives her a quick smile and returns to his sleep.
‘CAEN!’ the dispatcher shouts above the noise. He begins to bundle packets of paper out into the blackness, like a manic delivery boy throwing newspapers to his customers in the darkness of a winter morning. The bundles crack open as they drop into the void. He thrusts one of the leaflets towards her so that she can read the news.
La Revue du Monde Libre, it says, Apportée par la R.A.F.
‘ ’COURSE THE FRENCHIES JUST USE ‘EM TO WIPE THEIR ARSES!’ he shouts. ‘BUT IT MAKES JERRY THINK THAT’S WHAT WE’RE HERE FOR. GIVES US AN ALIBI, SEE? WE DON’T WANT THEM TO THINK WE’RE DROPPING SOMEONE LIKE YOU. ’
She smiles. Someone like you. But who, exactly?
A package to be delivered, like a bundle of leaflets.
Without warning the machine begins to pitch, a boat struck by waves. ‘FLAK!’ the dispatcher shouts, seeing her look of surprise. He’s grinning, as though Flak is nothing, and indeed there is nothing to be heard above the racket of the engines, no sound of shells bursting, no intimation that people down below are trying to kill them, nothing more than this pitching and banking.
‘WE’LL SOON BE OVER IT!’
And sure enough they are soon over it and the aircraft roars on, the hatch closed, through calmer waters.
Later the youth brings her and Benoit a mug of tea and a sandwich. Benoit scoffs his down hungrily – ‘Eat, mon p’tit chat,’ he tells her, but she cannot eat for the same reason that she couldn’t eat at the safe house before they went to the airfield, that slow, knotted constriction of her stomach muscles that had tightened up inside her from the moment that Vera had said, ‘TRAPEZE is scheduled for the next moon. Assuming the weather’s kind, of course.’ That was when the pain began, a dull ache like period pains when it wasn’t her period at all.
‘Are you all right?’ Vera asked her as they made their final preparations at the airfield. She had the manner of a nurse enquiring after a patient – concerned, but with a certain detachment, as though this were just a task to complete before moving on to the next bed.
‘Of course I’m all right.’
‘You look pale.’
‘It’s the damned English weather.’
And now it’s the French weather outside, buffeting the aircraft as it hammers on through the night. When she has finished the tea she manages to sleep, a nodding, awkward sleep more like a patient slipping in and out of consciousness than someone getting rest. And then she is awake again, with the dispatcher shaking her shoulder and shouting in her ear: ‘WE’RE NEARLY THERE, LOVE! GET YOURSELF READY!’
Love. She likes that. English comfort. The hatch in the floor is opened once more and as she peers down she sees something new, pale fields and dark woods skidding past below the aircraft, almost close enough to touch. The vasty fields of France, her father used to say. Benoit is wide awake now and alert, patting his pockets to make sure all is ready, zipping things up, checking his kit.
The plane tilts, turning in a wide circle, engines roaring. She can imagine the pilot up in the cockpit, searching, searching, straining to see the tiny glimmers of torchlight which mean that they are expected down there in the dark. A lamp comes on in the roof of the fuselage, a single, unblinking red eye. The dispatcher gives the thumbs up. ‘HE’S FOUND IT!’
There’s a note of admiration and triumph in his shout, as though this proves what wonders his crew are able to perform, to come all this way in the darkness, eight hundred miles from home, and find a pinprick of light in a blackened world. He attaches the static line from their parachutes to the rail on the roof of the fuselage and double-checks the buckles of their harnesses. The aircraft makes one pass over the dropping zone and she can hear the sound of the containers leaving the bomb bay and see them flash beneath, their canopies billowing open. Then the machine banks and turns and steadies for the second run.
‘YOUR TURN NOW!’ the dispatcher yells at the pair of them.
‘Merde, alors!’ Benoit mouths to Marian, and grins. He looks infuriatingly unconcerned, as though this is all in the normal run of things, as though as a matter of course people throw themselves out of aircraft over unknown countryside in the middle of the night.
She sits with her feet out through the hole, in the slipstream, like sitting on a rock with your feet in the water, the current pulling at them. Benoit is right behind her. She can feel him against the bulk of her parachute pack, as though the pack has become a sensitive extension of her own body. She says a prayer, a baby prayer pulled out of childhood memory, but nevertheless a prayer and therefore a sign of weakness: God, please look after me. Which means, perhaps, Father look after me, or Maman look after me, but whatever it means she doesn’t want any sign of weakness now, not at this moment of deliverance with the slipstream rushing past her and the void beneath, while the dispatcher gives her a nod that’s meant to inspire confidence but only brings with it the horror of superstition, that you must never congratulate yourself, never applaud, never even wish anyone good luck. Merde alors! that was all you ever said. Merde alors! she thinks, a prayer of a kind, as the red light blinks off and the green light comes on and the dispatcher shouts, ‘GO!’ and there’s his hand on her back and she lets go, plunging from the rough comfort of the fuselage into the raging darkness over France.
Currently reading Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu (Pantheon)