We called World War I the war to end all wars. World War II claimed even more lives and still haunts us. One would think that we’d have had enough of war. The protagonist of Simon Mawer’s historical thriller, Tightrope, certainly thought so. It frustrates and terrifies Marian Sutro to find that, after all she went through to help the Allies during World War II to defeat the Nazis, England is gearing up for another war with the Soviets. Tightrope is a portrait of a woman who uses skills gained in harrowing circumstances to try and alter global events.
Tightrope is narrated by Sam Wareham, who has been in love with Marian since he was a child. In the prologue, we learn that Sam has also joined British intelligence. He has traveled to Switzerland, decades after the events of the main part of the novel, to finally close her file. We then jump back to 1945. Marian has just arrived back in England after more than a year at Ravensbrück. In 1943, she parachuted into southern France to assist the French resistance, but was betrayed to the SS. Now, she’s skin and bones and severely traumatized. She’s muddling along as best she can when she hears that nuclear bombs have been dropped in Japan. According to Sam, Marian:
She lay awake at night. Faces passed before her eyes —the dead of Ravensbrück wasted by disease and starvation, the dead of Auschwitz and Hiroshima charred to cinders. How to stop it all? She saw death around the corner, smelt it on her skin, felt it deep in the core of her being. Hers had been a bitter, personal war and now it had become a bitter, personal peace. (*)
British intelligence sets up a job for Marian where she can help them keep tabs on a group that has ties to international peace groups and the Soviets. A few years after that, they ask her to become a “honey trap” for Soviet agents in England. As if Tightrope wasn’t interesting enough, it becomes even more fascinating here because Marian uses her new contacts to help pass information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets in an attempt to prevent a new, even more devastating war.
I wish I could have learned about Marian from her own perspective. Fortunately, Sam’s ongoing infatuation with her keeps his portrait of her rather evenhanded considering another narrator could easily have branded her a traitor. On top of that, there’s the issue of Marian’s sexuality. Even today I think people would be discomfited by her willingness to pursue her own pleasure. The fact that Marian has so many sexual relationships in the 1940s and 1950s is bold of her. We never learn much about who Marian was before the war, so we don’t know if she was ever conventional. Her war experiences may have unmoored her from any restrain cultural mores might have had on her.
The trope of male narrators telling the stories of female characters is beginning to pall for me. (Male writers, take note. Let the women speak for themselves.) That said, I enjoyed this book in spite of its problematic narrator. There is a lot of food for thought in Tightrope.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss for review consideration.
* Quote is from the 2015 kindle edition by Other Press. The chapters are not numbered and page numbers are not available.