This was a very good book with clever plot building and strong writing. The way the story is constructed slowly ratchets the tension tighter and tighter until it snaps with a convulsive shock. The point of view is divided between two characters who are equally interesting and two audiobook narrators who bring their respective characters to vibrant life.
In the normal course of things, Maddie and Queenie would never have even met, let alone become friends. In World War II era Britain, however, things are far from normal. With so many men off fighting in the war the shortage of manpower at home opens doors for women in the workplace. Maddie had just obtained her civilian pilot’s license when the war started and after working as a radio operator, she was able to join the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and help ferry planes across Britain. As a well educated young woman fluent in German and French, Queenie ends up working as a Special Operations Flight Officer. When a plane carrying the two young women crashes in occupied France, one is captured by the Gestapo and one makes it to safety. The story is split into not-quite-half as each gets a chance to tell part of the story, starting with Queenie telling us Maddie’s story as her own situation is slowly revealed.
I’m struggling to figure out how to talk about this book because there was one big issue that bothered me and had my inner critic jumping up and down trying to point it out. My inner reader, however, whipped out some Ninja moves and cold-cocked my inner critic who went down for the count so my inner critic is going have her say and then I’m sending her to her room so I can talk about how very good this audiobook was. My main issue with the story was that the major plot conceit – that these two women would have the time and ability to write such detailed accounts with what seemed to me to be an unrealistic degree of omniscience – was difficult for me to buy into. Fortunately, that thought was rapidly drowned out by the story itself which captivated me.
This is one of those audiobooks that I keep wanting to talk about in ways that aren’t necessarily about the text of the story, which unfolds in such an interesting way that I’d hate to spoil any part of it. I want to be able to convince you that this was a really good audiobook by telling you I finished it in one day and spent hours at a time listening because I just couldn’t make myself take out my earphones. That I would just nod and smile when someone spoke to me, pretending I could actually hear a word they said as I walked away. That I stayed up hours past my normal bed time (hey, it was a work night!) and, yes, the book made me cry. Have I convinced you? Let me try another tack.
The story structure is interesting, not just because it is written as what are essentially diary entries but also because we start out with Queenie, held prisoner by the Gestapo, telling Maddie’s story. When she reaches the point in the story where they meet and she’s talking about herself, it’s almost always in the third person. While this initially struck me as odd, that sense of distance made me uneasy about what Queenie wasn’t telling the reader about her current situation. As she details Maddie’s time transporting planes, the various airports she flies into, and the military officers and civilians fighting the war from British soil, we get a well-developed sense of both the time-period and the friendship growing between these two complex characters.
Interspersed with Queenie’s recounting of Maddie’s history are slowly revealed bits and pieces of the treatment Queenie is receiving under the direction of Hauptsturmführer von Linden, a character who begins to take on an unexpected depth. When the narrative switches over to Maddie’s diary the transition is smooth and my normal reluctance to switch character view point never materialized. Maddie’s story starts with the plane crash and details more current events. She finds safety with French resistance members and while she waits for a rescue flight back to England that is a long time in coming, she learns of Queenie’s capture. I was anxious for these two characters’ stories to merge again and as events started to gain momentum and everything began to unravel and the truth at the heart of the story was revealed, I was riveted.
The narration was very good. Morven Christie provided Queenie’s part of the story and I initially thought she was underplaying the emotion but as the story progressed it became clear how very well that delivery matched Queenie’s personality. At the point at which that seeming composure faltered, I was also forcibly reminded why audiobooks are such an effective method of transporting the listener into the story: less than a second of a shaky indrawn breath just prior to a single short sentence being spoken and my anxiety over where the story was going was tripled. In addition to using her native Scottish accent for Queenie, Ms. Christie seemed to effortlessly flow between English, German (accent and actual German), French (accent and actual French), and American – including actually singing parts of two different songs, one in German and one a Robert Burns song. The character voices were excellent, the impression of moment-to-moment scene discovery was fully realized and, after my initial opinion of the emotional content was revised, I was wrecked by the delivery of dramatic scenes.
Lucy Gaskell takes over as Maddie at a bit over half-way through. In some respects, this was the weaker of the two narrations – French and German accents weren’t believable in dialogue and sometimes Maddie sounded happier than I thought she should given what was going on – but much like the story completely overwhelmed my objection to the narrative-via-diary plot conceit, the character and personality of Maddie were so very vivid in Ms. Gaskell’s voice that I was never less than convinced she was Maddie. In addition, the range of emotions Maddie goes through were very effectively delivered. Overall, I was very pleased with the dual narration.