Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

This was a fantastic historical novel about World War II that is even greater because it is nearly all true.  Author Lawhon gives us the story of real-life hero Nancy Wake, an Australian who serves as a British special operative in World War II, working with French resistance fighters.

As with many historical novels, Lawhon begins this story at two different points in time: 1936 and early 1944.  In 1944, Nancy is air-dropped into France as “Madame Andree” (one of her many aliases), to work with the Maquis in Central France. In 1936, she’s a young reporter horrified by what is happening in Germany.

In her afterword, Lawhon suggests that readers go into this book without knowing all the details of Wake’s life, and I echo that recommendation. As a reader, I obviously knew how World War II would end, and I knew a little bit about the French resistance, which I’ve always been fascinated by. But Wake has an incredible story, and it’s worth it to let it unfold gradually.

At the end of the book, Lawhon explains what was factual, what was invented and why, and what her sources were.  She cites a number of biographies of Wake, and says that where there were factual conflicts, she deferred to Wake’s own memoir. There is clearly an impressive amount of research in this book, which I appreciated. Lawhon uses actual quotes and real-life incidents throughout her novel, as told by the people who lived through these experiences. There are a lot of details that help to flesh out Wake’s personality (some readers feel there is too much detail but I didn’t mind). At times the writing has an over-the-top quality, but from what I understand that’s very much how Wake was. Her brash personality was her armor and her way of earning respect among the men.

Nearly all of the characters are real people and their stories are based on historical records.  This leads me to my one criticism of the book. Lawhon invents one character, Marceline, and I think that was unfortunate. As a woman who is obsessed with Nancy’s husband, Henri, she feels more like a stereotype than a well-developed character. I understand the need to consolidate characters when turning a true story into a novel, and I can see where Lawhon might have wanted an additional female character since most of the characters are men. However, this is already a story of amazing courage and horrifying violence — things you would never believe if they weren’t absolutely true. I can’t see the need to add a fabricated villain to that.

Aside from that criticism, this was a book that had everything I love – tons of historical detail, an amazing heroine, interesting, sympathetic characters, and a story I couldn’t put down.

The audiobook narrators were excellent as well.  Sometimes historical novels don’t work as well for me on audio, because it helps me to see names, places and dates – especially as most of this book takes place in France, and I had to guess at many of the place names. That said, I loved hearing this story told in Wake’s Australian accent and Henri’s French accent, and there was a great deal of French throughout the story, which I appreciated hearing rather than reading (such as one scene where Henri teaches Nancy to swear in French).  As a French resident and a spy, language is critical for Nancy and the audio version really brings that to life.

I learned about this book from the What Should I Read Next? podcast and Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide.

For anyone who likes well-researched historical novels, and especially a good World War II story, I can’t recommend this book enough. Nancy Wake is a true hero and a person I would love to have met, and I want to know so much more about her. I’m glad Lawhon brought her story to life.

  11 comments for “Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

  1. August 10, 2020 at 2:34 am

    I absolutely LOVE Lawhon’s books, and this one is one of my favorites of the year! If you haven’t read her previous novels, you really should! They’re fantastic!

    • August 11, 2020 at 1:21 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that her other books are good as well! I’ll definitely check those out, thanks!

      • August 12, 2020 at 4:32 am

        Up until this, my favorite was “Flight of Dreams” but “The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress” was an amazing debut, and what she did with “I Was Anastasia” was fantastic. I’ve reviewed them all on my blog, and I even got her to do an interview through my Countdown Questions!

      • August 12, 2020 at 9:08 am

        Thanks, I was wondering where to start. I’ll check out your reviews!

      • August 12, 2020 at 9:31 am

        If I were you, I’d start from the beginning! The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress!

  2. August 14, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    Sounds absolutely fantastic – I am really into WWII French resistance books these days. I love the fact that it is based on a real person and her memoir. Putting it on the list now.

    It is interesting how the author added a villain to a story that already had plenty, and a stock one at that. To me, that screams of an agent or editor who is working by formula of “what sells.”

    • August 15, 2020 at 5:51 pm

      That’s a really good point. The author seemed to be very particular about using historical events, and this one character is her only creation. And it seems like whenever you have a really heroic female character, there’s got to be a female villain for her to fight.

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