Marian Sutro returns to the page. The last time we saw her was in Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. This time it is in his Tightrope. A spy story, a thriller for a change. Nothing special. A time out, so to speak.
We begin with Marian’s work for the Britain’s Special Operations Forces in World War II. She is parachuted into France, joins the resistance, her task to make contact with Clement Pelletier, a nuclear physicist and help smuggle him out of the country. She succeeds, but soon thereafter is betrayed, captured by the Nazis, after killing two SS officers.
She is tortured and sent to a German concentration camp—Ravensbruck—assumes the name of recently deceased prisoner, escapes and eventually finds her way back to England.
“You cannot tell anyone what it [Ravensbruck] was like. It wasn’t the stuff of words.”
She returns to the home of her parents where she is overly pampered, fed, treated like a child. All the while, she longs for the excitement of her life as an agent and heroine of the resistance. When her former handler temps her back into the Cold War world of espionage, she accepts at once.
At this point Marian Sutro begins a new life. We are introduced to her brother and his work as a nuclear scientist, and others who believed the West should share their knowledge with the Russians.
Once again she is drawn back in to the world of deception, double-crossing, struggle to protect her gay brother. Along the way there are various affairs, close escapes, and clandestine acts. An all pervading atmosphere of mistrust, uncertainty. And Mawer writes elegant prose, as if he knew exactly what the world of espionage was like.
“It is so very difficult to unpick the spider’s web of intrigue and betrayal, isn’t it? Some threads are irrevocably knotted together, others snap at the merest breath of inquiry.”
What makes Tightrope such a pleasure is the character of Marion Sutro, her response to the morally complex world in which she found herself, damaged in World War II, yet resilient, clever, calm, subject to great physical passions, able to hold her own at the slightest danger.
“To live happily, live hidden. She’d heard the proverb years ago during her training but she’d only recently found the source…Florian’s fables…It comes in the Fable of the Cricket who survives intact while the pretty butterfly dies at the hands of children. She was like the cricket—cryptic, camouflaged, concealed. A survivor.”
In the end Marion never knew if what she had done made the slightest difference. I suppose that is the way with the clandestine world, probably the world in general.