City of Spies by Mara Timon – a young woman in a wartime city balancing on the edge of neutrality

 

Realistically exciting and a thriller which maintains a breathless pace, this is an adventure in wartime Europe which expands on the already fascinating stories of female Special Operations Executive heroines. Elisabeth de Mornay is a woman with an obscure past, a perilous present, and an uncertain future. Operating on several levels Elisabeth herself is trying to work out which identity is most effective in a country which is balancing its alliances between German forces, the allies headed by British interests, and the disparate interests of Russians, Spanish and other nationalities all jostling for space and influence as seen in the large number of refugees in a small country. Elisabeth has discovered the high cost of being an agent in France over some time, as the danger of getting close to people as well as the danger of betrayal has left her determined to survive in any way. This is a brilliantly researched novel which revels in the details of a setting intimately described, the clothes that much of rationed Europe could only dream of, and the food and drink that seems to be little affected by shortages. Going under various guises she must work out who, if anyone, she can trust, when no one is completely as they seem.  This is a well written book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

 

The book opens with Cecile recalling her time in France as a “pianist” or radio operative. Partly lucky, partly because she is brave and resourceful, she has survived thus far, but one more betrayal has propelled her to seek sanctuary with an older woman even though her very presence is a threat. Her training means that she knows when she is being followed, and what to do in hand to hand combat. She has an incredibly strong need to survive, which keeps her going even when under fire. A chance encounter leads to a whole new set of problems, and means that she turns up in Lisbon in June 1943. Her new setting means a new role with an old contact in a new context, an encounter which exposes several facts about her background. Slipping into the  role of a mysterious French widow who has recently arrived in Lisbon as a refugee from occupied France, she has the house, clothes and identity fabricated for her, but her own preparations means that she goes further to create other disguises in case of need. As she begins to blend in with a society of refugees and transitory residents of a country balancing on the edge of neutrality, the gossip, jealousies and dangers of a confusing place mean that she must constantly adjust her assumptions about those around her.

 

This is a book that is virtually impossible to put down when engaged with the adventures of a remarkable woman. I enjoyed Elisabeth’s story in France as she takes on huge challenges, but it is in Lisbon among a community of potential spies and military from Germany and other enemies that the narrative really comes alive as she must try to double guess everyone who she meets. The setting is beautifully described; the cafes, the parties, the streets and the countryside all come alive in glorious detail. The character of Elisabeth is a wonderful one, as she uses her intelligence and cunning to prepare as much as possible for threats and attempts on her life. A fast moving and enjoyable story with a warmth of personality which is memorable, I thoroughly recommend this remarkable novel. 

I feel really proud to be starting the blog tour for this wonderful book. In the back of the book there is an historical note about the elements of the story as researched by the author, and a question and answer section which gives more details about the writing of the novel. These additional sections are fascinating and well worth a read in their own right.