In his new novel, Trapeze, Simon Mawer explores the secret world of British Special Operations Executives (SOE), the agency that recruited citizens to work behind enemy lines during World War II. It was the women of the French Section who most captured Mawer’s imagination: women from all walks of life who were united simply by their ability to speak perfect French and willingness to risk their lives for their country. Mawer based his lead character Marian on a friend of his parents who was recruited as a Special Op and disappeared behind enemy lines for the duration of the war.
Nineteen-year-old Marian Sutro is a native French speaker, having grown up in Geneva as the daughter of a British diplomat and a French mother. She is doing her bit for the war effort, working with codes and ciphers for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, when she is recruited by the bland Mr. Potter for the SOE. Soon she is undergoing commando training in the Scottish Highlands, attending a “school for spies” in New Forest and learning to parachute out of planes. When she lands in occupied France in 1943, it is to join the local resistance network.
But there are complications. Marian’s brother is a well-known scientist, and Marian herself was close with French physicist Clement Pelletier—she once harbored a schoolgirl crush on him. Before leaving England, she was approached by an even more secretive organization than the SOE, one that wants her to convince Pelletier to leave France and work with the Allies on plans for an atomic bomb. Though her initial instructions keep her in southwestern France, she realizes she must get to Paris if she is going to reach Pelletier. Even if she finds him, will he want to return to London with her?
Trapeze sets a thriller-like pace, and Mawer writes compellingly about the deprivations of wartime France as well as the everyday dangers of occupied Paris. His background as a science teacher gives him a facility with integrating scientific ideas; in Trapeze, he uses concepts drawn from physics as metaphors for Marian’s evolving sense of self. Though very much a story about the intricacies of the spy network, Trapeze is also about a young woman who is called upon to do something extraordinary and is thus forever changed.