In October 1943, a British plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Both the pilot and the passenger are women, and they are best friends. Queenie, code name Verity, a British spy, is captured by the Gestapo, and tortured for information. While she knows she should be strong and defiant, revealing nothing to her captors, she breaks, and hopes to prolong the time before her execution with a Sheherazade-style narrative about herself and Maddie, the pilot who’s killed in the crash. She writes her story on beautiful stationary, recipe cards, prescription pads and unused sheet music, hoping to keep the interest of the Gestapo officer in charge, earning herself a day or two longer with each “chapter” of her narrative.
The story of how Queenie (actually a Scottish noblewoman) came to befriend the granddaughter of a Jewish motorcycle salesman, and how Maddie became a successful pilot during the war, while Julia was recruited into espionage, is told interspersed with desperate ramblings about her time imprisoned in an occupied hotel, her feeble hopes of further survival, her self loathing about having cracked under torture, how she knows the other prisoners despise her for being a collaborator. Each new chapter gives further insight both into Maddie and Queenie became unlikely best friends and got involved in the British war effort in their different ways, and the horrible situation that Queenie finds herself in.
About halfway through the book, there is a surprising revelation, and if I wasn’t already completely engrossed in the story, this development ensured that I was even more reluctant to put the book down. The chapters in the latter half of the book are much shorter, and I kept reading with bated breath, both to find out the end to Queenie/Verity’s and Maddie’s story, and what would ultimately befall Queenie? Would she be rescued by the allies, and have to face their condemnation for her treachery? Would she, condemned as a nacht und nebel (shadow and fog) prisoner, be sent off to a concentration camp to have medical experiments performed upon her? Did Maddie actually die in the plane crash, as the Gestapo claimed?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a book about a young woman, imprisoned and tortured, during the Second World War is heart breaking and unlikely to end with puppies and kittens and sunshine and fun. I haven’t cried so much during the latter half of a book since I read The Fault in Our Stars earlier this year, although it has to be said, not all the tears were sad. The book is very cleverly written, with more than one surprise in the narrative, and the two protagonists and their friendship are wonderful. True heroines both, they defy the contemporary gender roles of women, and risk their lives to make a difference.
While the book is not based on actual events, the author confesses that the story is inspired by a number of incredibly brave women who fought for their countries during World War II. This book is an absolute treasure, although the subject matter is obviously not a frivolous one. Because it’s written for young adults, most of the references to torture and the true horrors of Queenie’s imprisonment are implied rather than graphically described, but it’s still quite a harrowing read, so readers who tend to invest heavily in the books they read (like I do), should probably be warned that it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster. You should still read the book, though, because it’s awesome. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, possibly several years.