Book Review for “Code Name Hélène” by Ariel Lawhon
Nancy Wake was an ex-pat Australian, working as a freelance journalist in France sending stories to the Hearst papers in the US, when she fell in love with the wealthy businessman, Henri Fiocca. That was in 1936, and Nancy had already witnessed the beginnings of the rise of Fascism, even reporting on the cruelty of Brownshirts and interviewing a strange, but up-and-coming German politician named Adolph Hitler. She understood then the threat to France and all of Europe. So, when the war began, her first instinct was to outfit an ambulance so when Henri, now her husband, was called up, she could also be useful to the war effort. Little did she know then that this would lead her to become (as Goodreads says) “one of the most respected and powerful figures within the French resistance, all the while doggedly working towards liberation, and back to her beloved Henri.”
No, before I read this book, I had no idea who Nancy Wake was, or anything about the woman behind the many aliases she had including The White Mouse, Madame André, and of course, Hélène. In fact, Lawhon begins her book with the line “I have gone by many names.” The fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of these names, despite her being one of the Gestapo’s most wanted spies, and the extraordinary number of awards heaped upon her after the war (literally across the globe), makes me ashamed, both for myself (as a lover of historical fiction, particularly biographical, women’s fiction from this era), and for the oversight of history not shouting her story out from the rooftops. Well, thank heavens for Ariel Lawhon, and for her writing her story so beautifully (or should I say, righting history). I will now take this opportunity to reiterate what Lawhon says as introduction to her author’s note at the end of the book: do NOT read those notes before you read the novel! PLEASE!
I’ll admit that I’m a huge fan of Lawhon’s work, and I’ve been one since reading her first novel in 2014. Although that might make it seem like I’m prejudiced, I can assure you that I’m not (and I hope that will be evident through this review). To prove this, I’ll start with the thing that didn’t sit 100% right with me, and that was the order of the last several chapters. See, my thinking was that after one of the climactic chapters, a couple of the ones that followed felt slightly like a letdown. In particular, the chapters that were flashbacks to earlier times, that gave background for action that took place later on. These slightly disrupted the flow of the ending of the book, and I’m not sure how I might have re-ordered them to make it feel smoother. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted Lawhon to cut any of them, because they were all important to the story (including at least one twist I hadn’t expected).
Other than that, I have to say is that through this book, I became totally and utterly enamored with Nancy Wake, by whatever name she used. My regular readers will know that last year I fell in love with the character Nina in Kate Quinn’s “The Huntress.” Well, sorry Nina, but it is already time for you to step aside – Nancy is my #1 favorite bad-ass woman now! Yes, I know that Nina was fictional and Nancy was a real person, but still… when it comes to pure grit, ingenuity, and audacity, there’s just no comparison. Furthermore, while Nina was crass in both language and looks, Nancy had an even fouler mouth on her. Plus, even when she went for days if not weeks without the ability to keep up her appearance, she always made sure that people would never be able to see what was behind the façade until she wanted them to, with her red lipstick always at the ready. In addition, the way Lawhon portrays Henri, well… SWOON! Again, my readers know I’m not into romance, but boy, this relationship was a true joy to watch develop, like watching a tiny rosebud turn into a full blown, gorgeous rose. In a word: Exquisite!
One of the reasons why I love Lawhon’s books so much is because they’re so vividly written, with just enough poetry underneath her forthright style. As I mentioned in my third #DiscussionSunday post, I recently realized that when I read, I can practically see the action take place in my head. However, if the writing is lacking and I can’t visualize things clearly, the books often get lower ratings from me. I’m pleased to say that this book was so beautifully crafted that I think someone should make this into a movie and ask ME to help make sure that what I saw in my imagination comes across the same on the screen. This was particularly true when Lawhon described scenes that took place in France while Nancy was leading the resistance. Hell, I could almost feel the blisters, aches and pains that Nancy suffered, which never once diminished her fortitude to succeed with her mission.
Seriously… do I need to say more? Would any of my readers be surprised at my recommending this book wholeheartedly, with a full five out of five stars? I’m sure you won’t be (yes, I cried; yes, I laughed. Both when I wasn’t expecting to cry or laugh). Mind you, I must admit that although this came extremely (almost dangerously) close, it didn’t actually beat out Lawhon’s “Flight of Dreams” for my favorite of all her novels so far. This is ONLY because of my little niggle regarding the order of those final chapters, which wasn’t enough of a problem for me to reduce it even by a quarter of a star. Read this book. You won’t regret it… but WARNING: If you don’t like to read books with dialogue that includes tons of swearing (even though the real Nancy reportedly could make a furious, drunken sailor blush, and Lawhon toned it down for this novel), then this book might not be for you!
Doubleday will release “Code Name Hélène” by Ariel Lawhon on March 31, 2020. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from Bookshop.org or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.