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Review: Code Name Hélène, by Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday, 2020. 437 pp. $28

When we first meet Nancy Wake in late February 1944, she’s parachuting out of an airplane over France, assigned to finance, arm, and train Resistance groups in the Auvergne. An Australian-born journalist by training and adventurer by temperament, Nancy goes by several other names, depending on what role she’s playing. Safe to say, though, that if her biography resembles this novel in the slightest — and the author assures us it does — few people could claim to have had a more hair-raising or active role in clandestine World War II operations. Her constant struggle against men who dismiss or try to exploit her adds a superb, extra layer to the story.

Studio portrait of Nancy Wake, 1945, in a nursing uniform, photographer unknown (courtesy Australian War Memorial on line catalogue ID Number: P00885.001, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Imagine someone talking her way into a job as a stringer for Hearst, with no reporting experience, and turning that into several scoops, including an interview with Hitler, another with a much sought-after Austrian Jewish refugee, and a visit to Vienna to confirm his account of brutality. None of those feats rates a byline, because Hearst won’t give her one — sexism, again. Oh, and by the way, she has one of the richest, most charming men in France wrapped around her finger.

From start to finish, Code Name Hélène will grab you and refuse to let go. It’s got to be one of the most compelling World War II stories I’ve ever read. What’s more, we have several narratives, not just the romance and the clandestine activity but further divisions within each, yet Lawhon stitches them seamlessly, from prewar to the war’s darkest days and back. Rest assured that “no — and furthermore” comes thick and fast. As a narrative of action, heartbreak, and sheer brass, Code Name Hélène is hard to beat.

Like any good novelist, Lawhon puts the reader in every scene with physical, active detail evoking emotion, and that’s what hooks you. You could pick any page for an example, but consider this description of Janos Lieberman, the escaped Jewish refugee, whom Nancy meets in Paris in 1936:

He’s pleasant-looking but not remarkable. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Dark stubble across his solemn face. It’s the jagged pink scar cutting its way from earlobe to eyeball that makes him instantly recognizable. The whip split him clean to the bone and nearly took out his left eye in the process. Even from this distance the stitch marks are still evident, little pocked craters at even intervals along his cheekbone. The scar looks like a broken zipper, and he will be forever marked by its ferocity. You cannot help but stare when you see him.

Such technique should apply in any novel, but it’s absolutely essential to portray a character like Nancy, who’s not just larger than life; she’s larger than any three lives put together. If the author did not show each moment in its fullness, portraying its intricacies, mysteries, and, often its physical demands on Nancy, which can be excruciating, you might not believe a word. But because you’re inside her skin constantly, you accept what happens.

That said, you might not accept other aspects of the novel, starting with the portrayal of France and the apparent play to a stereotype, the so-called French obsession with sex. I have no idea whether Lawhon intends this, but as a longtime student of French culture and history, I sense it, and it feels like pandering. Where the French take sex as a natural function, Anglo-Saxons find decadence, fit for squirms, shock, and sorry pilgrimages to the Moulin Rouge.

Speaking of men and women, Nancy’s French lover seems to have no inner life, except as it relates to her. He’s a Marseille businessman, a man-about-town, and politically committed, so why doesn’t he have dreams and desires other than Nancy? Many male authors have been rightly criticized for creating female characters who exist solely for the men around them. The fault also applies in reverse.

As for Nancy’s characterization, I kept wanting to find a flaw and couldn’t. Oh, she insists on her perks, sleeping on a mattress in a nightgown, while the Resistance fighters she commands are lucky to have a blanket. But that’s part of her charm, and everyone understands that nobody is tougher than she is or has her physical endurance. I wish that Lawhon had stopped there, however, and eliminated the Hollywood confrontation scenes, complete with righteous speechmaking.

By contrast, Nancy’s antagonists are all bad, including her male rivals within the Resistance. No one, other than they and the Germans, betrays sadism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia. The flimsiest prototype is Marceline, Nancy’s rival for her lover’s affections and another instance of Hollywood—the Other Woman with six-inch fangs.

So Code Name Hélène is a curious mix, an absolutely riveting story that sweeps you away and conquers disbelief, yet peopled by figures who seem too cut-and-dried to be real. Treat yourself and read this novel, by all means. But if you’re like me, you’ll keep the salt shaker handy.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.