First published in May 2012.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is Simon Mawer’s ninth novel. The author was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2009 for The Glass Room. This novel was inspired by 39 women who were trained as secret agents by the French section of the Special Operations Executive between 1941 and 1944. Mawer views these women and their war efforts as ‘remarkable’.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky launches into the action straight away. The woman in the prologue, at first unnamed, is ‘trussed like a piece of baggage’ and ‘battered by noise’ in an aircraft which she soon jumps from with her parachute. This woman transpires to be Marian Sutro, a fictional character and the main focus of the novel.
When the reader is first introduced to Marian, she is given a posting in France ‘of enormous value to the war effort’. As a young woman, she is extremely excited by the prospect of such undercover work, and is told that ‘it is not that your work is a secret; your whole life is a secret’. As the novel progresses, Marian takes on several different personas, switching from one identity to the next as the situations around her change.
Despite having to sign the Official Secrets Act, Marian treats her job with mirth, not quite realising the seriousness of her situation. She seems not to care who she utters her secret to, in fact. First of all she informs her brother Ned about exactly where she is going to be posted and the information she learnt whilst training in Scotland – how to use weapons and Morse code, for example. She is also happy to disclose such information to complete strangers whom she meets on a whim. These traits seem most unlikely to be found in a woman who undertook such duties, and it is close to impossible to picture such a blasé character in such a position in the context of World War Two. As a result, Marian is not a believable character, and it is difficult for the reader to feel any compassion whatsoever for her. Throughout, the third person perspective has been used and the book has been split into relatively short sections.
Several qualms can be identified throughout the book. The descriptions which Mawer gives of Marian do not built up to create a unified persona. At first, she is ‘jejune, pallid, with awkward limbs and hips’ and, at twenty years old she is seen as little more than a child. Barely a few weeks go by before she is seen by all and sundry as ‘beautiful’ and irresistible, however, which does not really gel. Any instances of shouting within the novel is presented in capital letters at first, but this technique abruptly stops. This makes it feel as though there is little cohesion between the first chapter and the rest of the book. Several of the dialogue exchanges also use language and phrases which feel a little too modern for the period.
Some of the sentences throughout do seem rather long, but on the whole the prose is carefully written. In places, these long sentences serve to build up the pace, particularly in the first chapter. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky has clearly been well researched and is rather geographically precise, but some elements do not seem to fit in the overall framework of the novel. The writing itself is not bad by any means, but due to the simplicity of language which is often used and the repetition of several phrases throughout, it lacks depth. As a result, the book does not quite come to life for the reader.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is described as ‘a gripping adventure story and a moving meditation on patriotism, betrayal and the limits of love’. Sadly, this description is more exciting than the novel itself. Whilst some elements of it are interesting, there is nothing original, both in terms of plot or characterisation, in the novel. Rather, it follows the structure and occurrences of many other spy novels set in the Second World War. The ending too feels incredibly abrupt, giving the entirety of the novel an unfinished feel.