Code Name Hélène

Written by Ariel Lawhon
Review by Michael I. Shoop

The thrilling, astoundingly incredible World War II exploits of the vivacious journalist and socialite Nancy Wake are evocatively portrayed in this ambitiously written novel. Lawhon has meticulously researched her subject and has provided an enormously entertaining saga of one woman’s daring resolve to assist in the French fight for freedom from the German occupation, while at the same time attempting to lead a life of happiness as a woman married to a wealthy Frenchman in Marseilles.

Wake’s adventures are legendary: her rigorous training with the British Special Operations Executive, smuggling refugees across the Spanish border, killing a German officer with her bare hands, escaping a moving train, jumping from planes, arranging for air drops of supplies and weapons, leading men in military training camps. Lawhon’s narrative is divided by the four code names Wake used during her career, and although her timeline skips back and forth a bit, after a while it is not hard to follow. While the hard-drinking, profanity-spouting Wake’s military escapades are probably the most exciting sections, the novel also explores her sweetly romantic courtship and marriage to the charming and handsome Henri Fiocca, a strong-minded French industrialist.

Good narrative pacing, vivid descriptions, well-rounded characters, and dramatic real-life situations all combine to make a fascinating tale of one woman’s courage and perseverance in the face of terrible odds and personal tragedy. I was totally enthralled by Nancy’s story, and kudos to Lawhon for bringing this mostly forgotten heroine to the forefront.