Book Review: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Okay, first off: If you are one of those losers like me who ‘kept meaning to pick up’ a copy of Code Name Verity but hasn’t done it yet, I would like you to step away from the computer, go to your nearest local independent bookstore, and get it. It’s out in paperback now, so it’s not wicked expensive. Seriously. Go away. The rest of you, who are far wiser than me and the readers who are all running pell-mell towards their bookstores right now, can stay.

Code Name Verity is a fascinating piece of historical fiction written in two parts. The first is an account of a German prisoner of war, who remains nameless for much of the narrative but eventually identifies herself as Julie Beaufort-Stuart, being held in France. She’s ordered to write out a confession which turns into a narrative of her training, the establishment of a friendship with Maddie, a woman pilot, and a bitter indictment of her Nazi and Vichy captors. It’s wrenching, grueling, and horrific as she talks about her torture, giving up secrets, and wondering if she’ll survive the war, at times longing for a direct RAF hit on the facility where she’s help in the hopes of putting an end to her torment.

The second half is Maddie’s story, which picks up when she crash-landed the plane carrying her and Code Name Verity (Julie) on their way into France. Maddie writes about working with the French Resistance, trying to rescue Verity from captivity and get out of France. The two narratives manage to overlap without repeating; we’ve already seen much of Maddie’s early years in training in Verity’s writing, so she doesn’t talk about it in her own, focusing on a real-time account of what’s happening around her.

And this is where things start to get interesting, and where I warn readers who have not read the book yet to stop reading because, trust me, the way this book twists is something that you will want to uncover for yourself rather than having it forced upon you.

Julie’s confession is a lie.

As readers, we’re drawn along by the agonised detail, her misery about giving up code, names, dates, locations, and other informations to the Nazis. It’s totally 100% believable, as are her notes about the brutality of the female Nazi who oversees her, her anger about being gussied up and then trotted out as a model prisoner of war for a broadcaster, and more. As her narrative progresses, she reminds us that she’s a turncoat and a traitor and feels intense guilt for it, and although there are clues, many of them are not very obvious, except for the moment where she screams at a member of the French Resistance who refuses to talk that she should ‘just lie’ to get the Nazis to leave her be.

At the very end of her confession, the moment where it breaks off, Julie tells the reader she is telling the truth. Over and over and over again. The confession comes at a high cost, we see, as her mind starts to break down under strain and she regrets ever more deeply her betrayal of her country and all the people involved in the war effort. It’s an artfully constructed narrative.

And Maddie almost immediately blows it apart as the narrative switches to her point of view and they start getting intelligence from the inside about what Julie is doing. All along, Julie is lying. She’s making things up on the fly with such deft skill that her interrogators don’t even realise it, thinking they’re pulling valuable intelligence from her. Codes, names, locations, all are gibberish, and Julie doesn’t give up the names of her Resistance contacts, her pilot, or anyone else. To the last—to the moment where she is loaded on a truck for transport to a concentration camp for medical experiments—she lies to protect her country and to protect her best friend.

Because Code Name Verity is a novel about friendships, and this is something that really sets it apart from a lot of YA. This is not about romance, it is not about finding the perfect partner, it is about friendships and how ferociously they can endure, how much you are willing to give up to ensure the safety of a friend in danger, and how much the thought of a friend can help you cling to the world, and cling to reality. Julie and Maddie are best friends and their bond is a critical part of the story as both of them talk about what they do during the war and why.

It’s so rare to find books about friendships these days that Code Name Verity would be distinguished on that alone, but it’s the ultimate choice Maddie has to make that really drives it home for me. Faced with a horrible set of circumstances and a situation that has no positive outcome, Maddie chooses the most humane option when she shoots Julie on the bridge, hating herself for doing it but also knowing it’s the most loving and appropriate thing to do. If it’s a question of being shot in the head or subjected to gruesome experiments for months before being summarily executed, the choice is obvious; Julie’s cry for help is the incentive Maddie needs to help her escape in the only way possible when all else fails.

Code Name Verity is compellingly written with fantastic historical detail, and it’s also a book that punches you savagely in the gut in a way that’s stunning, stellar, and totally appropriate. There were a lot of unhappy endings in World War Two, and Maddie’s story as part of a larger patchwork was only one sad piece of a huge and tremendously tragic puzzle, but that made it no less immediate and heartbreaking.