Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon
Publication Date: March 31st, 2020
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
This book is based on the life of Nancy Wake, an Australian expat who worked as a reporter for Hearst in Paris just before WWII and later as a spy for the British. Lawhon throws readers into the middle of the action, as Nancy, under the alias Hélène, prepares to parachute from an RAF plane into France to help the Resistance in 1944, carrying in her head memorized lists of vital data, including bridges targeted for destruction and safe house addresses. After she lands, the story flashes back eight years, as Nancy struggles for respect and recognition as a journalist; despite her firsthand observations of Nazi brutality in 1930s Vienna, her editor is reluctant to publish a story about what she's seen. Frequent jumps in time draw out the arc of Wake's remarkable life; despite her statement early on that women's weapons of warfare were limited to "silk stockings and red lipstick," by the end she's proven herself skillful at physical combat as well.
I struggle with simply calling this historical fiction since Code Name Helene is based on the true story of Nancy Wake. A great deal of what is included in this book is pulled from real events and things that she had to go through but it is also a fictionalized version of her life. Regardless of how you would categorize this book, it was an absolutely enthralling read.
I read Ariel Lawhon’s book I Was Anastasia in 2019 and was amazed at how she was able to weave fact and fiction into her book and she continues to do so with Code Name Helene. That is one of the shining light of Lawhon’s books - you can tell just how much thought and research goes into them. She is meticulous and knows how to bring it all together into a fiction that makes you beg for more. Which she also provides within the Author Notes where she discusses what works she cites from and draws details from.
Nancy Wake is a name that I have been hearing more about in the last couple of years and I was very happy to find that 2020 was the year that a few different novelizations came out about her life. The moment I saw Lawhon had her name on one, though, I new that’s this was the one I would choose. This woman’s life was (and frankly still is) fascinating. Everything that she did, everything that she endured, all of her accomplishments and loses… so much was included in this book in such a unique way.
The way that Code Name Helene is laid out is that it is in dual time-line. We are immediately introduced to Nancy as Helene and her imminent drop into France to aid the Resistance. We see a great deal of this version of Nancy and this part of the plot takes up nearly half of the book in and of itself which is understandable as there is a lot to cover. This time-line plays out in chronological order with very little time jumping which really helps the reader to feel a part of what Helene is accomplishing and how she is growing in her role within the Resistance even though she had been working with them for years before this point.
This brings me to the other time-line where we are introduced to Nancy Wake. Freelance journalist and veritable sponge of information. I also loved this aspect of the story. I enjoyed learning about how Nancy came to have the role of Helene and her budding relationship with Henri - oh my heart! I loved these two. This part of the storytelling spans many years from Nancy’s early time in Paris to Henri to her introduction to the Resistance to her operative training and everything in between. I honestly could not get enough of these parts of her life.
My only issues come from the balance of time and giving each part its due. With the sheer amount of information that she had access too however, there is always a risk of too much of one thing and too little of another but this is also very subjective and I won’t really hold it against the book too much. The ending itself seemed a fair bit rushed though and I found it odd that she chose to end it as she did. There was a point before the last couple of chapters that would have been a perfect ending in my opinion but then she chose to do a flashback within a flashback so as to offer a reveal that I think would have been safe to put within the chronological order of Nancy Wake’s chapters. This was jarring to me as a reader because she had established that everything was chronological to the name in the chapter heading but then chose to change this at the very end. (Meaning chapters that are headed as Nancy Wake are in chronological order from the start of that first chapter, chapters headed as Helene continue chronologically following that first chapter, etc).
I was certainly not prepared for a slew of emotions that came over me while reading this book. More than once I had to stop myself from looking up Nancy Wake and Henri Fiocca to see where they actually ended up. Nancy’s life was enthralling and I will definitely need to delve into my own research to learn even more about her. Lawhon did a fantastic job of opening the floodgates for me while also providing a great over all view of Nancy as a person.