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Marian Sutro survived. For those who fell in love with her in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, this revelation was surely met with joy and fear in equal measure. Did we really want to know about the horrors she experienced after her arrest? And how could Simon Mawer possibly do better with Marian’s story than that dark and gut-wrenching ending, let alone risk venturing into the well-worn cold war spy genre?
Mawer must have been tempted to continue Marian’s story in the conventional way he told it in The Girl who Fell From The Sky, where we see her adventures unfold from a close third person point of view. Instead Mawer does something quite different and much more ambitious in Tightrope and it is this, at least in part, that keeps the book alive.
Tightrope is not told by Marian at all, but instead by Sam Walcott, her nephew. The book starts with Sam visiting Marian in Switzerland. She is now an old woman, and they haven’t seen each other for a very long time. Her greeting to Sam leaves us in no doubt. ‘Samuel,’ she said. ‘It must be almost fifty years.’ Inside, Sam sets his tape recorder running, and we understand right away this is no social visit. Accepting the framing of the story, that everything we read from now on is Sam’s interpretation, is critically important to understanding what is going on in Tightrope.
Although Tightrope starts with Sam recounting his visit to Marian in the first person, the point of view soon starts shifting around as Sam imagines how people, including Marian, felt, what they saw, and their motivations. This device gives Mawer the freedom to go anywhere and to anyone with the story, and he does, even showing some of the action from the point of view of minor characters. He often drops back to Sam in the first person, who explains directly how he deduced who did what, or how he can’t be sure about some other incident. This reminds us not only what is going on – that Sam is piecing together Marian’s post-war life – but also that the whole thing is Sam’s interpretation. Was Marian’s husband as unexciting as Sam likes to think? Was she really as brave as he describes? And does Sam interpret Marian’s decisions in an overly generous way, showing her in a more favourable light than she deserves?
The chapters in Tightrope are short, often with one-word titles, and Mawer is confident enough to not resort to using places and dates to signpost where we are. We are in safe hands with Mawer as an author, and we know only as much as Sam knows. But what does he know? He has relied on Marian’s stories and explanations, limited secret service records, and his own love-and-lust-struck memories from fifty years ago. These are hardly reliable sources.
And so, where the story does wobble a little, with cold war and secret service cliches in the language, the plot twists echoing just a little too much le Carre, or the characters Marian encounters appearing somewhat stereotypical, we can forgive Mawer because it is Sam’s voice, not Mawer’s, telling the story. Mawer echoes many of the real-life events of the sixties and seventies, even referencing directly some of the people involved, while presenting fictionalised versions of others, all somehow connected to Marian’s story.
There’s still plenty of darkness in Marian’s life throughout Tightrope. She’s not that good – otherwise she wouldn’t have been caught in The Girl who Fell From The Sky – and she has weaknesses that leave her vulnerable. But she is also passionate, brave and confident, and it is the combination of all this that gives us some extraordinary moments in Tightrope.
While the subject matter of Tightrope has been traversed many times before, and some have asked whether Mawer should have even attempted to go into the genre, his approach – to come at it side-on, through Sam, whose own career in the secret service is only hinted at – keeps it fresh and alive to the very end.
And, of course, everyone still loves Marian Sutro, flaws and all. That’s not a surprise, the story being told through Sam’s eyes, Marian being the only one he ever loved. If you haven’t read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky I recommend you pick up a copy first, and I guarantee you’ll want to move on to Tightrope without delay.
Reviewed by C P Howe
by Simon Mawer
Published by Hachette New Zealand