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Code Name Verity
At last! I finally get to write about my one true love of the year, the book I will champion against all others as the be all, end all best book of the year.
(Sorry, Railsea, you rock, but you’re still not number one, Pyrite nomination notwithstanding.)
Oh god, now that the moment is here I feel such pressure to make the case. Because this is, for my money, the runaway best written book of the year. And yes, I loved it, but that’s not actually the point at all. The point is that this is a masterwork of writing, full of literary flourishes, tightly plotted, rich in character, well-grounded in reality, haunting in setting, and just hitting it out of the park on so many levels. It deserves the Printz.
(And look, people, the world has been amazing about keeping mum about some of the intricacies of this plot, because there are twists and reveals and they are super. But after nearly a year of keeping mum unless the other party in the conversation had also read it, I’m going to break my discretion, because I can’t discuss CNV with any level of specificity or textual evidence unless I give it all away. So do us all a favor. If you haven’t read CNV yet, please don’t click through. This is a book that is already fettered by the weight of expectation for some readers; do yourself a favor and read it unspoiled. We’ll wait. You’ll be back.)
Having just mentioned the twist, let me start with a few thoughts about that precise thing.
I’ve read Code Name Verity two and a half times so far — I’m in the midst of my third read right now. On the first read, I was completely flabbergasted when the narration shift happened. I turned the page, thinking it seemed like Julie’s story was over, but there was an awful lot of book left, and hey! Maddie! Which, since I believed along with Julie that Maddie was dead, was even more startling. Once I got to end, emotionally wrung out but also full of admiration for the way Maddie’s section changed every. single. thing. I thought I’d known in part one, I turned back to page one and read the entire book again.
On the second read through, hard on the heels of the first, I noted a lot about the torture; it’s so easy, reading Julie’s narration, to just slide right over those casual remarks. A few of them had jumped out, but her voice is so lively that until I saw Julie through Georgia Penn’s eyes and Maddie’s, I could not fully grasp the extent of the harm done to her. There are so many plays on the idea of perception throughout this, and that’s one of them. Julie is deliberately being flip and insouciant; her assessment of the damage done to her is something she refuses to dwell on, and while she mentions it a fair amount, the way in which she does that is so calm and collected (most of the time), it’s easy for the reader to be lulled by Julie’s narrative. But on a second read, fresh from the horror of hearing about the situation through Maddie’s eyes (via Georgia Penn), suddenly the reader’s sense of reality is completely different and so is the way we read Julie’s section. I also noticed how slick Julie is — she says, at one point, “IT’S JOLLY AMAZING, YOU STUPID NAZI BASTARDS,” which initially seems like anger at her own complicity, but once the truth — the verity? — is revealed, it becomes clear that even as she engages in this bold, probably hopeless game, she is telling the Nazis just what she is doing.
On the third read, I’m startled by the literary references. Peter Pan is the primary reference point, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. And while many of us probably tend to think of the slightly glossy Disney version, the Peter Pan Julie would have known is a very chilling story about loss and loneliness (and oh, that she gives Maddie the call sign Wendy in her version of events for Von Loewe Linden (name changed between ARC and final copies), making Julie Peter Pan and thus lost — chilling and perfect foreshadowing). Also, it’s Scottish (or at least by a Scot), which makes it both a literary motif and another way of exploring the question of identity and affiliation, which, like perception, threads its way throughout under the surface plot.
But there are also multiple references to the story of Theseus and Ariadne; Julie never overtly references the fact that Theseus was a planned sacrifice, but I think that’s an implicit connection; the willing sacrifice of oneself for a greater good is very much a part of what she is doing. (Just, Theseus actually escaped his Labyrinth.) And of course there’s the 1,001 Nights/Sheherezade references, and nods to The Little Princess, A Tale of Two Cities, Goethe’s Faustus, and others. Each reference both seems completely natural — all of them come to the reader through Julie’s narration, not Maddie’s (although Maddie references the importance of Peter Pan in the context of the Stuart-Beaufort family), a nod to the class differences in England at that time (yet another subtheme is the breaking down of class divisions), but also each literary reference has additional resonances, especially A Tale of Two Cities, in the context of Julie’s life.
I should not have been startled by the references, because all of them are there on the page for the sharp reader from the first, but a lot of the depth is hidden on the initial read; references to Ariadne and the labyrinth, for example, merely seem part and parcel of Julie’s privilege — and she definitely comes from a life of immense privilege, so references to the classic literature, her ancestral castle, and the Swiss boarding school all flow together — and while one can’t miss the Peter Pan nods, they are more meaningful and far more ripe for analysis when the reader has the full picture (the symbolic meaning of the call sign, for example, didn’t register until the third read.)
What I’m seeing is that the skilled writing here goes way beyond the twist or the plotting that makes the twist work, and once the surprise is out of the way, all the other literary elements can bubble to the top of the reading experience. And it’s easy to dismiss the twist as a well-executed gimmick, so rereading CNV struck me as really important. Does it work even when you know what’s coming? Is it a sleight of hand or a work of substance? All those literary references are one of the pieces that make this more than a one-trick pony.
And let’s talk about that plotting. It’s an amazing feat; Wein tells many of the same stories twice, from two perspectives, one of whom is lying through her teeth. All the dates and details needed to match, all the details of the memories needed to match without being in dialogue with one another. The tightness of Wein’s grasp on her plot, her characters — all very impressive. That’s the piece most one-off readers will probably walk away in awe of, from a technical perspective, and it is awe-inspiring.
But there is also some lovely writing, especially in Julie’s narration; there are moments of memory that are just beautiful (the green flash, the scene she imagines rather than remembers when Maddie visits Castle Craig for the first time). Julie and Maddie’s voices are nothing alike, and Maddie’s narrative has a plainspoken quality that tells just as much about Maddie as Julie’s tale of Maddie told about Julie.
I could find more to praise — there are layers of unspoken stuff that speak volumes (I for one think Maddie and Jamie are clearly falling for each other and might already be involved, and Maddie and Julie both know it, and clearly Damask is Julie’s grandmother, which is just heartbreaking) — but I’d like to talk about the flaws. And the themes.
This is not a perfect book. The single biggest flaw, to my mind, is the damn eternapen — it gets mentioned just that bit too much, and draws attention to itself, which reminds the reader that this is historical fiction, and makes the reader aware of research, and does some serious damage to the suspension of disbelief right at the start of Maddie’s narrative. Similarly, the underlined bits in Julie’s pages (that Engel’s underlines for the Resistance) called attention to itself and make the reader think about those sentences. I see how the idea is to give the reader a clue that there is more going on, but I think the effect is to distract from the story Julie is spinning, and that also breaks that willing suspension of disbelief.
And I know there are those who find Julie’s spinning plates impossible to get beyond — how can she do this when she’s been tortured? But the person revealed throughout the book is someone who has an amazing capacity for make-believe, and also she slips up. A lot. Rereading, I have so many moments where I marked a sentence that sounds genuine, and a sentence after that I believe is Julie trying to cover her error. She’s playing a game and she plays it well, but not perfectly.
And, of course, the “Kiss me, Hardy” moment. Which made me cry buckets, so this was not something that bothered me, personally, but it’s true — it’s pretty ridiculous that Maddie is a crack shot in that horrendous moment. But there is narrative imperative compelling that bullet to find its mark.
No book is perfect, and I can forgive the flaws because this still rises above everything else I’ve read thus far this year (but yes, I have a few more serious contenders to read) — and these are flaws that I read and reread the book to find; the emotional spell (unless you are one of the few who just hate Julie from page one and can’t get past that or the flying details to get to the emotional bits) makes all of the minor issues immaterial on the first go-round.
Finally, thematically, this is so rich. Friendship, female empowerment, World War II and the nature of heroism, survival, and goodness — all universal themes, made tangible and specific through this unlikely, unstoppable friendship.
Simply put, best book this year.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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