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Espionage and Intrigue in Marian Sutro's Life

Tightrope - Simon Mawer


Tightrope, Simon Mawer, author; Kate Reading, narrator

In Simon Mawer’s first book about Marian Sutro, “Trapeze”, she was one of 40 young British girls enlisted to help in the war effort, working in enemy territory for the SOE (Special Operations Executive). She was flown into France where she parachuted in and assumed a French identity. She was trained as a spy in techniques of survival, but still, she was betrayed and caught, cruelly interrogated and sent to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. In this book, “Tightrope”, her story is continued, told through her eyes and the eyes of her childhood friend Samuel. More than a decade younger, he was completely devoted to her.

During her brief career as a spy in France, Marian had assumed many identities, committed murder and suffered torture at the hands of the Nazis. She had learned subterfuge and knew how to lie, a skill she carried with her after she finally escaped and returned home. She used those skills in her effort to create a life for herself after what she had experienced. It was difficult. She had been grievously hurt, emotionally, physically and mentally by her treatment. Returning home, she found a world that was engaged in a Cold War and an arms race. The events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shocking and unacceptable to her. She was conflicted about the results of the war effort and was completely against the development of the bombs. She felt greater access to the technology should be made to other countries which she believed would prevent the bombs from ever being used. Her brother Ned agreed with her, and after the war, they often spoke about their feelings of frustration.
Marian looked for some kind of work in order to return to the real world, but she had no real skills besides spy work. She was awarded medals and accolades for her service. When Britain recruited her again, to help with the politics of the Cold War with Russia, she accepted. She married, worked for the Peace Union and attempted to live a normal life. When Ned’s homosexuality was discovered, she was blackmailed by the Russians into helping them, as well. She became a quasi double agent. It was difficult to know to which country she felt a greater loyalty. She was an accomplished liar and constantly took advantage of the survival techniques she had been taught when trained for her drop into France.
Although she was tricked and betrayed by her enemies, compromised and drugged in order to extract information from her, she still seemed to be able to rise above and meet every challenge, tricking those attempting to trap her. She was brave and strong, even if somewhat misguided. Marian had little real allegiance to anyone but herself. Secrets were her stock-in-trade and she never told the whole truth. It was hard to know which part of her story was real and which was imagined even when she confessed her sins, so to speak, to Samuel.
Both Marian and Ned became involved in an effort to change the course of history. Ned never knew why his sister became involved with Russia, nor did he know the true extent of what she did or how she did it. He only knew that she compromised herself with her sexual promiscuity and naïveté, endangering her own life and possibly the lives of others, but he too, was promiscuous and naive. Marian suffered from survivor’s guilt and often had nightmares, sometimes forgetting who she was and reverting to a previous wartime identity. Searching for peace within herself, a persona she could live with, she often behaved without regard to morality. She was disloyal to her husband and viewed cheating almost as her right of passage. She frequently seemed to take unnecessary risks, playing both ends against the middle, but her ability to lie, most often saved her. Because of her training in espionage, she often noticed danger, things around her that others might not. Still she put herself in harm’s way, regardless.
The story moved slowly but steadily to its end as the author placed us in the European theater through the prewar and postwar environment. The setting was realistic, the mood somber. There were shortages of food and other necessities of life. There was misery and frustration and suffering. For some, it seemed a bit easier than for others, but the adjustment back prewar life was monumental. Marian was often lost in her own imagination, sometimes not fully rational or realistic, and even as she tried to reconstruct her life, she was defeated by her memories and her training; yet it was ultimately that training that saved her.
The end of the book fast forwards into the future and we find Marian, now 80 years old, living with still another identity in Switzerland. Out of the blue, Samuel, the son of her mother’s friend, reappears after 50 some years to tie up the loose ends of her life. She has never told anyone her whole story, and one has to wonder if, in the end, her confessions to Samuel were actually true. Who was the real Marian Sutro?
I listened to an audio version of the book, but I also have a hard copy. It requires a slow and thoughtful reading of that time period of horror for the world. The narrator read it in a steady, smooth, and calm voice, making the revelations stark and real in their barbarism but also easier to absorb. War affected everyone in different ways. No one was unscathed, and the effort of everyone involved was based on different motivations. The reading was presented with little emotion, in a matter of fact way, which is how Marian was also portrayed. She proceeded almost like an automaton, doing what she must, planning carefully and thoughtfully, always prepared to run, always on edge on the inside but calm on the outside, as she had been taught.