In spring 1943, Ava Harper is perfectly happy with her job in the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress, where she spends her days among “fragrant, yellowed pages.” But as World War II rages on, Ava is pressed into service for a covert government operation that involves information-gathering from newspapers, magazines and other texts published in neutral territories. Eager to do her part to end the war in which her brother is fighting, Ava resolves to get to work.
However, when she arrives in the neutral country of Portugal, Ava learns that her job entails so much more than promised. She finds Lisbon filled with refugees, “their arms laden with sacks of belongings, battered suitcases, and children. Languages from all over Europe rose from the crowd, blending French, German, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and many more into the cacophonous hum.” Desperate for passage to the United States, the refugees are all scrambling to secure visas and tickets on ships that may or may not arrive.
Among the publications Ava gathers is an issue of Combat, a periodical printed by resistance fighters in Lyon, France. Within its pages is a coded message about a Jewish mother and son in hiding. Deeply affected by the anguish she sees in Portugal, Ava connects with the Frenchwoman responsible for printing Combat, and together they race to save the family.
It feels strange to describe a book about the miseries of World War II as entertaining, but The Librarian Spy is a truly captivating read. Bestselling author Madeline Martin (The Last Bookshop in London) is known for her deeply researched historical fiction and romance novels, and as Ava's story unfolds, readers can practically smell the bica, a Portuguese coffee drink, and feel the hunger, terror and cold afflicting the French as they endure the Nazi occupation. It is a delight to be carried through these experiences by Ava, an endearing, quiet bookworm who finds her purpose despite the odds.