If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer's Trapeze - at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance - you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn't after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.
With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren't clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war's deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother's homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.
And as it turns out, the SOE's motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique - with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread - is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian's nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy's highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.
The brevity of Marian's training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat -- it's a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It's hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer's theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character - its weakness or its power - until we are faced with desperate times?
I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt "character-driven" to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.
Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn't character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters' world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.
What leads me to finally reject the notion of "character-driven" as reductive is Simon Mawer's restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction's inextricably-linked elements - setting, plot, character, theme - and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.