Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Hélène is a spellbinding work of historical fiction inspired by the real story of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, a woman so extraordinary that your first instinct might be to believe she is imaginary, like James Bond.
In 1936 Paris, Nancy, an Aussie expat, cleverly bluffs her way into becoming a freelance journalist at the European branch of the Hearst newspaper group. It’s a career chosen out of necessity rather than a calling, but Nancy is nonetheless very good at it, earning respect from her male colleagues for her bravado and instincts. It isn’t long before she falls in love with a wealthy French industrialist named Henri Fiocca. The two marry and make Marseille their home, where Nancy is ready to spend the rest of her life as Henri’s supportive housewife. Truthfully, Lawhon could have stopped Nancy’s story here and left it as one of the most sensual romance novels you’ve ever read.
But there is more to life than romance, as Nancy discovers in 1940 when Henri is drafted to fight the Germans. Alone, anxious and restless, Nancy starts by driving an ambulance for the wounded but soon finds her way deeper and deeper into the French Resistance until she emerges as one of its most powerful leaders. Nancy, also known as Madame Andrée the fighter, Lucienne Carlier the smuggler, Hélène the spy and the White Mouse, becomes the most wanted person on the Nazi target list. She is real, this really did happen is the mantra you may find yourself repeating, in awe at every page.
In her acknowledgments, Lawhon describes the extraordinary life of Nancy as first and foremost a story about love and marriage. Right away it seems preposterous to consider a story about a woman who seemed to magically summon weapons for the Allied Forces, who killed a Nazi with her bare hands, who saved thousands of lives, a love story. But let the story sink in, and Nancy and Henri’s enduring love will indeed rise to the surface.