TRAPEZE, by Simon Mawer. Other Press, 371 pp., $15.95 paper.
At first glance, Simon Mawer's ninth novel seems a surprising change of pace. In previous books, including "Mendel's Dwarf" and "The Glass Room," Mawer crafted narratives that ranged over decades to encompass an abundance of topics, from tangled family relations to religious faith and political repression.
"Trapeze," by contrast, is a stark, focused adventure. It moves swiftly from Marian Sutro's recruitment as an undercover operative during World War II through her training and her dangerous mission in France to a cliffhanging climax in a train station that ought to have a neon sign flashing "Sequel This Way."
Although narrower in scope than Mawer's earlier work, "Trapeze" is no less rich and provocative. And in Marian he's created a marvelous heroine.
She's the daughter of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman, raised in Geneva and completely bilingual. That's why a man with the "Inter-Services Research Bureau" asks Marian to volunteer for work in which her chances of survival are, he estimates, "about fifty-fifty." She does well in training, learning to use firearms and explosives, operate a clandestine wireless and encrypt messages.
"She played the game with gusto," Mawer writes of a practice mission in Bristol, "knowing that one day it might not be a game any longer." We see her daring attitude when she encounters Benoit, a handsome French refugee, in a London bar. They meet again during training, and she deliberately loses her virginity to him before they parachute together into southwestern France.
Marian's second assignment is instigated by her brother, Ned, a physicist. He knows she still nurses a crush on Clement Pelletier, a French scientist and family friend who remained in Paris after the Germans invaded. And he believes she can persuade Clement to join his colleagues working at Cambridge on a new kind of bomb that could win the war for the Allies.
From the moment she bounds up from her parachute landing, thinking, "How will anything, ever again, be as exciting as this?" it's clear she will be an exceptional agent. Dispatched to Paris, Marian learns the Germans have broken up the clandestine network she was counting on to help her get Clement to England. She takes refuge with the scientist, who's astonished to find the adoring teenager transformed into a resourceful woman setting up a wireless on his roof. Readers who have seen her bluff her way through a checkpoint and gun down two men when cornered will not share his bemusement, nor will they be startled by the decision that leads Marian to the novel's brutally abrupt denouement.
Marian's actions and emotions tell us everything we need to know about the reasons for that decision, and the advance proofs sent to reviewers contained no further elaboration. Unfortunately, Mawer added last-minute revisions to the published book to make her motives more explicit. It's a small fault in an otherwise skillfully and intelligently executed thriller, but it suggests writers often are wise to stick to their original intentions.