The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
by Simon Mawer
Barely out of school and doing her bit for the war effort, Marian Sutro has one quality that marks her out from all the others - she is a native French speaker. It is this that attracts the attention of the curious Mr Potter who calls her to an interview in an anonymous office in London. Potter is a recruiting officer for the Special Operations Executive, which trains agents to operate in occupied Europe. So it is that Marian finds herself undergoing commando training, attending a school for spies, and ultimately, parachuting from an RAF bomber into the South-West of France to join the WORDSMITH resistance network.
However, there is more to Marian's mission than meets even the all-seeing eyes of the SOE. Before long a friend from the past returns and it soon seems that Marian could hold the key to the future of the whole war effort. A fascinating blend of fact and fiction, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is an old-fashioned adventure about a woman who did the most extraordinary things when the ordinary was not enough. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
I picked this book up as part of the Richard and Judy Book Club reading challenge. It started off very well, with Marian being dropped from a plane into occupied France, and then moving back to show how she was recruited to be a spy. I found myself grabbed by the book straight away. However, at this point it began to slow down a lot, and it took a long time to get back to France. Marian’s spy training was summarised and breezed over, which I found disappointing, and the way it was written made me feel disconnected from the story in a similar way to how Marian seemed to be disconnected from it, as if she were never really taking things seriously. This was portrayed well, but I did find it a little frustrating, and I thought some of Marian’s motives and feelings were hard to fathom at this point.
When the story finally winds itself back round to Marian being dropped in France, it immediately drew me in again. Marian’s missions in rural France almost feel a little like a game, tinged all the time with a sense of vague menace, which is in sharp contrast to the extreme tension and heavy, serious atmosphere when she is in Paris. I thought the author did an excellent job of capturing the fears and despair of a city under occupation, of the constant suspicion and anxiety. These sections were also paced perfectly, and Marian’s double mission within the city was interesting. The author writes very well, with little details that really set the scene.
Marian herself I found a sometimes wonderful and sometimes baffling character. She never seems to quite know what she wants, and the frivolity with which she makes major decisions is frustrating at first. However, we see her grow up a lot and really begin to understand just what’s at stake. We see her begin to connect with things and people in a way that she didn’t seem to in England. She’s confused about her place in life, and about her feelings for two different men, and there are points where this takes over the novel too much. Marian’s choice at the end of the book, though a little maddening, felt exactly right for her character. She had finally chosen something, firmly, for herself. In the end it wasn’t a choice of which man, or even what was practical, but what kind of person she wanted to be. I’m still not sure how I feel about the very end itself, but it did suit the themes and mood of the novel.
A slow first half that left me feeling disconnected, followed by a much stronger second half with some tense and gripping sections. Characters that were frustrating but also genuine, and a main character who grew a lot in interesting ways throughout the novel. A couple of almost-romances that sometimes dominated the plot too much, but a fantastic sense of setting and some lovely writing. This book often hopped between extremes for me, but overall I enjoyed it, and I loved the sections set in Paris.