Title: Code Name Hélène
Author: Ariel Lawhon
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: March 31st, 2020 (Doubleday Books)
Synopsis: This book is based on the life of Nancy Wake, an Australian expat who worked as a reporter for Hearst in Paris just before WWII and later as a spy for the British. Lawhon throws readers into the middle of the action, as Nancy, under the alias Hélène, prepares to parachute from an RAF plane into France to help the Resistance in 1944, carrying in her head memorized lists of vital data, including bridges targeted for destruction and safe house addresses. After she lands, the story flashes back eight years, as Nancy struggles for respect and recognition as a journalist; despite her firsthand observations of Nazi brutality in 1930s Vienna, her editor is reluctant to publish a story about what she’s seen. Frequent jumps in time draw out the arc of Wake’s remarkable life; despite her statement early on that women’s weapons of warfare were limited to “silk stockings and red lipstick,” by the end she’s proven herself skillful at physical combat as well.
The day is February 29th, 1994, and Héléne is parachuted from an RAF plane into France in 1944 on a mission to aid the Maquis – the French Revolutionaries – ahead of the Allied landing, armed with vital information to aid the resistance and of course, her red lipstick. Flashback to eight years in the past when the first stirrings of war are in the air and Héléne is the freelance journalist Nancy Wake, witnessing a horrifying example of Nazi cruelty in Vienna. This one experience has a profound effect on her and she vows that if she can ever do anything to subvert the Nazis she will – and eventually, a few years later when she is settled down into a socialite’s life in Marseille, an opportunity appears. The two storylines run in parallel, tracing the many transformations she goes through – Nancy, Mrs. Fiocca, the smuggler Lucienne Carlier, the infamous White Mouse hunted by the Nazis, the spy Héléne, and finally Madame Andrée – painting a portrait of a remarkable woman who became one of the most powerful leaders in the French Resistance.
For the second historical fiction novel in a row, I went in blind, purposefully not doing any research because the blurb sounded way too intriguing to spoil the story. A good choice, once again as it turned out, since the author has done a really good job sticking to the real story as far as possible. I never thought I’d describe a historical fiction novel based in such a serious and troubled time as an adventure, but there it is. It was more than just an adventure though – this book was a powerful journey of friendship, bravery, love, war and sacrifice.
Héléne, or rather Nancy, was an unapologetic, irreverent and utterly brave woman who ventured unhesitatingly into a realm of war traditionally for men with her red lipstick as armour and went toe-to-toe with the male leaders in the Resistance, earning their respect and loyalty, and it was a pleasure to learn about the exploits of such an amazing figure in history. In a rather astonishing reversal of the usual situation at the time, it was Nancy who worked and fought with the Resistance and her husband Henri who holds down the fort at home, supporting her unconditionally – no matter how tragically that might have ended, and it was quite interesting to learn of such a story out of the World War II era. Code Name Héléne was a captivating read right from page one and as the pieces from the two timelines began to come together, I found myself wishing that the story would go on for a little longer so I could read more about these characters I’d gotten to know so well despite the entire narrative being from Héléne’s perspective alone. At over 450 pages, this is no easy read, especially considering the heavy content, but trust me, this is not a book you will want to put down once you’ve started it.
I had a really good feeling about this book as soon as I heard of it, and it turned out to be one my favourite reads so far this year and is also going on my best of shelf for 2020. The author’s other book, I Was Anastasia has been on my TBR for a while and I’m moving it to the top of my backlist after such a thoroughly satisfying read. Code Name Héléne was a beautiful story and it was wonderful to learn about one of the most decorated women of World War II. I would highly recommend this absolutely fascinating read!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!