Shortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance. In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been. Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure. She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum. The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent. However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.
When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation. No such issues here. I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating. Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback. She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on. When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.
There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events. This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians. This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux. Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.
But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers. A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.
Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision. To which novel should I award my shadow prize? Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn. Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination. Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before. I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days. Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.