TIGHTROPE

Winner of the Walter Scott Prize, 2016

 

As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutro, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris when she was captured by the Gestapo. Now she is one of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive. She has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, but at what cost? Returned to an England she barely knows and a post-war world she doesn’t understand Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her and a young RAF officer attempts to bring her the normalities of love and affection but she is haunted by her experiences. She had learnt to become invisible in the streets of Paris, to kill and survive torture and imprisonment - now she must learn to adapt again, this time to the strange normality of life in post-war England.

But while Marian tries to rebuild her life and cast off her identity as an agent and heroine of the resistance, the memories of torture, heartbreak and betrayal won't leave her - and nor will the longing for adventure. When her old handler tempts her back into the shadowy world of espionage, the need to serve the greater good proves hard to ignore. Drawn deep into the dark heart of Cold War politics, Marian must risk everything to protect those she loves, to serve the cause she believes in and - most of all- to follow her own desires.

A powerful examination of the complex idealism and courage of those who continued the fight for peace when the second world war was over, Tightrope is also the story of on unforgettable woman: assassin and survivor, heroine and traitor.

 

US Reviews...

 

UK Reviews:

From the Guardian, 24/9/15

This stylish cold war thriller brings impeccable period detail to a tale of deception and derring-do

"...it is important to note that Mawer is thorough in his research and that the inspiration for Marian is very clearly the well-documented exploits of the real-life women of the SOE. Also, he is a novelist who chooses his words carefully – unlike all those writers who flick through an old Le Carré, fire up their laptop, Google “female spies” and knock out a cold war thriller. Mawer’s period detail is perfect, and his prose impeccable.

But Mawer’s greatest creation is undoubtedly Marian herself... Beautifully inferred and brilliantly imagined... It is difficult to create a character with genuine charisma, but Mawer seems to have managed it with Marian. She isn’t quirky or wacky. Nor is she brilliant: she acts mostly on instinct. And yet she embodies a kind of energy, and has a steely determination and a quick-wittedness that make her remarkable. She remains always calm, to the point of being cool: subject to great physical passions and desires, she happily indulges herself and then moves on. She is indeed perhaps the closest thing to a female James Bond in English literature."
Ian Sansom

From the Observer, 9/8/2015

"Mawer makes Marian’s fear palpable. Her worry about returning to everyday life is sensitively set against her strength and perseverance (“Marian’s careful reconstruction of a life… creeping out into the postwar world”). Passages that repeat, in the way that memories do, combine with the sometimes fragmented language to perfectly reflect the mind under stress. Mawer is most strikingly adept when writing on the intangible: love, loss, fear, identity and nostalgia."
Claire Hazleton

From The Tablet, 18/7/2015

"She (Marian Sutro) is a deeply scarred but completely compelling character. The period atmosphere is done with perfect pitch, and the narrative is as taut as the title."
Edward Stourton

From the Irish Times, 5/7/2015

"Tightrope is a nuanced spy novel akin to the best work of John le Carré, in that it bypasses the cloak-and-dagger conventions in pursuit of the noble flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies that lie at the heart of the most fascinating spies.

...Mawer delivers an absorbing tale about an extraordinary woman who finds her understanding of duty, patriotism and honour ripped to shreds by epoch-defining circumstances."
Declan Burke

 

From the Sunday Mirror, 14/6/15

"…Sutro is a singular creation – a fascinating and compelling character and the account of how she becomes caught up in Cold War espionage is enthralling."

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From The Times, 13/6/15

"Mawer sensitively evokes the crushing normality of post war Britain and the struggle of a woman who has lived in high definition to forge a new life in a grey world. The story is partly told through the besotted eyes of Sam, 12 years old when Marian returns at the age of 24, lending a jerky but oddly realistic quality to the narrative, seen through the fading snapshots of memory. Haunted by her wartime lovers, two dead and one married, two male, one female, she is wooed by, and then marries, a virginal former Spitfire pilot who never shot anything down, “a two-dimensional sort of chap” whose dreary, ponderous virtue echoes that of 1950s Britain. This is an odd, bumpy novel: part fascinating psychological exploration of the symptoms of war-withdrawal, part conventional Cold War thriller, and threaded through with a touching story of a boy-man’s love for a woman-girl. In the first part there is little action and much introspection and recollection, evoking the inner emptiness of a liberated, bloodstained woman returning from battle; in the second, the plot shifts suddenly into high gear, and she becomes a heroine-spy of a much more familiar type.

...Mawer has done his homework well. Marian Sutro appears to represent a combination of the well-known SOE agents, but with an admixture of Eileen Nearne, the SOE agent who vanished into obscurity after the war and died in2010, unheralded and unknown. The best-known women SOE agents were turned into cardboard heroines after the war, central to the Carve Her Name With Pride school of patriotic propaganda. They were, of course, far more interesting, flawed and complex than that, a truth which Mawer explores in this intriguing, often lyrical, but disjointed novel. The experience of the SOE women was almost uniformly horrific; but the cloak and dagger, once worn, is oddly hard to shed."
Ben Macintyre

From The Financial Times, 12/6/15

"As Mawer showed in his 2009 Man Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, he has a gift for both deft plotting and the sort of pitch-perfect detail that places the reader squarely in the midst of a particular time and place. They are on display here too: Marian’s manoeuvrings to keep ahead of both British and Soviet espionage services, and her shuffling of intelligence ... are cleverly done.

In Marian, Mawer has created an attractively awkward figure — damaged, resilient, self-contained and needing danger in order to become truly herself. The tightrope of the title refers not just to the balancing act of spying but also to the thread between the normal, domestic life Marian wants and the excitement she needs. It is Mawer’s focus on character as much as on action, and on recognising the morally complex worlds in which those characters operate, that inescapably calls John le Carré to mind. Comparisons can be invidious though: Mawer is no acolyte and here shows again his own distinctive talent."
Michael Prodger

From the Daily Express, 12/6/2015

"... an atmospheric Cold War thriller that fans of John Le Carré will savour ... a meticulously researched depiction of a society coming to terms with the new realities of a bipolar world.

... a meditation on the shifting nature of identity and loyalty in a fractured Europe... Tightrope is told in a mixture of the third and first person, the latter being the voice of Sam, a much younger man who grows up idolising Marian, a friend of the family. Navigating between these two voices is a fine balancing act but one that Mawer pulls off skilfully."
Huston Gilmore

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From The Sunday Times, 31/5/2015

"Mawer is a skilful writer and this is a sophisticated, deviously constructed story of a woman who finds her true self in the distorting mirrors of the intelligence game."
Nick Rennison

From the Tatler, 1/6/2015

"A compelling Cold War story… told by a series of flashbacks… The start’s a slow burn, but Mawer soon grips you with his labyrinthine plot."
Sebastian Shakespeare

From the Mail on Sunday 7/6/2015

"Simon Mawer is a true master of literary espionage. In his previous novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, his heroine, Marian Sutro was parachuted into France to liaise with the Resistance, only to end up in a concentration camp. In this sequel, she has escaped from Ravensbruck, but is finding it hard to adjust to the suffocatingly dull world of post-war England. The habits of secrecy and betrayal are ‘pungent, exhilarating, like sex’, and with the Cold War looming, there is no shortage of outlets for her fetish. Tightrope is gripping stuff, with a sinuous plot and some haunting bedroom scenes."
Max Davidson

 

From The Scotsman, 6 June 2015

"Tightrope is a novel of espionage, somewhat in the Le Carré vein. Like Le Carré Mawer is as much concerned with ethical questions, and the conflicting demand of loyalty and truth as with action. He doesn’t, however, have Le Carré’s interest in the minutiae of the business, field craft and the bureaucratic maze; his treatment of these matters is fairly perfunctory, none the worse for that; he is more concerned with character.

Marian is at the heart of the novel. All the other characters – even the narrator who plays a bit part in the narrative – are significant only in relation to her. Mawer depicts them all agreeably and convincingly, but they are allowed no inner life. Marian, subject to intermittent breakdowns, tormented by memories of her wartime experience in France and in Ravensbruck, is emotionally fragile, yet strong-willed and capable… She is a thoroughly and impressively imagined character.

Mawer’s evocation of poor, battered post-war London, still a drab city of thick and clammy fogs, is beautifully done. Likewise he handles his plot, moving back and forward in time, in masterly fashion, flashbacks correcting one’s sense of the present…

Mawer blows the dust off the history and makes it matter as you read. He is one of the most accomplished of novelists today and his last three novels, all probing the dark years of the mid-20th century, are exceptionally fine.

I suppose if Mawer followed Greene – and he is a writer whose interest in the ‘the dangerous edge of things’ recalls Greene – he might term Tightrope and its successor ‘Entertainments’. They are certainly that, but they are serious and disturbing too, and there is more than a touch of what used to be called ‘Greeneland’ in his picture of seedy, down-at-heel post-war London with men in mackintoshes and Trilby hats drinking whisky in dark bars."
Allan Massie

From the Daily Telegraph Review, 6 June 2015

"In the opening sections of the book, Mawer captures Marian’s disorientation with affecting conviction. His feeling for time and place remains impressively sharp, from rationing-era London to the ‘strange, febrile vitality’ of post-war Paris. Marian remains a compelling heroine, whose many contradictions are all believable – even if, to the long list of men who are smitten by her, we can confidently add the name of Simon Mawer.

Along the way, we learn plenty of stuff about the development of atomic weapons, and why so many of the scientists involved believed that the West should share its knowledge with the Soviets. Yet none of this is quite enough to disguise the fact that the second half covers some pretty well-trodden ground. If nobody had written a Cold War thriller before, the last 200 pages might seem like a startlingly original combination of narrative twists, moral ambiguity and an all-pervading atmosphere of mistrust. As things stand, the nagging sense of familiarity becomes ever harder to ignore.

Oddly, Mawer seems aware of the problem. The book is framed by a present-day interview between the elderly Marian and the somewhat intermittent narrator, Sam who knew (and, of course, loved) her as a young man… ‘The whole damn story,’ he writes early on – and in a possibly unwise hostage to fortune – ‘is riddled with clichés.’…

After a notably varied career… Mawer has certainly earned the right to try something more straightforwardly commercial, by respecting the conventions of the traditional thriller. The trouble with Tightrope is that, while the result is often undeniably entertaining, this respect seems to grow increasingly slavish the longer the book goes on."
James Walton

From the Reader's Digest, June 2015

"Simon Mawer’s last book The Girl Who Fell from the Sky marked a serious change of direction: from the literary novels that established his reputation to a more conventional thriller about a woman dropped into wartime France. That same woman, Marian Sutro, returns in Tightrope—and so does Mawer’s full commitment to respecting the thriller conventions.

If nobody had written a Cold-War thriller before, what follows might seem like a startling masterpiece, full of narrative twists, moral ambiguity and an all-pervading atmosphere of mistrust. But any fan of spy fiction will have come across these elements many times. Mawer arranges them deftly enough, and Marian herself is a compelling heroine. Even so, this is a curious mix: on the one hand, a smart and often gripping novel; on the other, a book whose sense of familiarity never quite goes away."

James Walton (again)

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Tightrope - US Reviews

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 19/12/2015

Simon Mawer's new novel, "Tightrope" is a follow-up to his last one, "Trapeze" (2012), and continues the daring acrobatics of his wonderfully drawn Anglo-French spy, Marion Sutro.

British-born Mawer has excelled with another tangled, character-led literary thriller. His characters convince... but it is Marion who is the indisputable star turn, a woman haunted by history, torn by opposing loyalties yet determined to stay afloat.

Whether read as a sequel or a stand-alone novel, "Tightrope" is a perfectly poised balancing act. Here's hoping it's not the last we've seen of Marion Sutro.
Malcolm Forbes

The Washington Post, 25/11/2015

...Simon Mawer’s fine new novel “Tightrope,”...

Mawer writes with skill and sophistication about the shadowy world of spies, as he does about sex, love and politics.

Mawer, a British writer whose previous novels include the much-admired “The Glass Room” (2009) and “Trapeze” (2012), captures the political passions of a war-torn age. In Marian, he has created a wonderfully complex heroine. If she is sometimes selfish and manipulative, and if her love of the handsome Russian seems irrational, we must ask how often people are rational about love and, beyond that, what lingering damage a year in a Nazi death camp might do to anyone’s judgment.

Reading “Tightrope,” I thought of Graham Greene’s “The Human Factor ,” in which he asked why a man might betray his country. “Tightrope” confronts that same question, and as a work of fiction it does not suffer by the comparison. It’s an ambitious, highly accomplished novel.
Patrick Anderson

The Wall Street Journal, 20 November 2015

Kriegspiel (blind chess) is the leitmotif of two remarkable novels by the English author Simon Mawer. Though “Tightrope” (Other Press, 500 pages, $15.95), the stronger of them, is a sequel and for the most part follows directly from the end of “Trapeze” (Other Press, 371 pages, $15.95), these two books are best read as a single narrative, the story of one woman’s remarkable life, first in the war against Nazi Germany, then in the morally ambiguous years of the Cold War...

Mr. Mawer leads us into the world made familiar by John le Carré, that labyrinth of moral uncertainty and disquiet. He gives it his own twist, speaking with his own voice as he traces Marian’s erratic and duplicitous course with sympathy and intelligence...

A good novel enables one to think and feel at the same time and also makes us realize that it is possible to believe what we want to believe while knowing that belief is false, to excuse wrong action because we love the actor, and yet to question the reality of that love... The nature of truth—emotional and intellectual truth—is one of the subjects of these novels; and truth, we find, is slippery as mercury. In the end, looking back, Marian can say that “it all meant so much at the time, didn’t it—the Cold War, the Bomb, spies, traitors, all that kind of thing,” but now? Now it’s “just a dusty piece of history.”

No doubt that’s true, though history doesn’t come to an end; it merely turns a corner to reveal new dangers, new horrors, new occasions for fear. These well-written novels can be read with enjoyment as thrillers, because we are in a position to treat that “dusty piece of history” as matter for entertainment, but they also blow the dust off that history and ask questions about the right way to act—and whether we are entitled to judge the past, when playing Kriegspiel was a matter of life and death.

 

New York Daily News, 10 November 2015

“Tightrope” is a bit like a game of chess. It starts out slow and at first the characters feel interchangeable. Then, about a quarter of the way in, it suddenly turns into an intense story with unpredictable moving pieces that seem headed for a tragic fate. The chess-like feel is apt for the new Simon Mawer novel, as the game becomes a recurring metaphor weaving its way throughout the book...

With gay characters and a promiscuous heroine, the book sees the past through a more modern lens – although at times the repercussions of Sutro’s sexuality are troubling. She’s a full character and an ostensibly admirable war heroine, but in the manner of an easily dismissible trollop, some of her worst decisions are made because she can’t – or won’t – keep her legs shut.

It is written with all the regret of a war novel, but the themes are equally applicable to times of peace. In telling the tale of mid-century Europe, Mawer explores whether it’s OK to do bad things for a good cause; what, exactly, is the value of loyalty and at what point the innocent victim crosses over to become the bad guy.

For the first 100 or so pages, it feels like the book is still waiting to begin — but it’s well worth the wait. By the end, “Tightrope” is a page-turner filled with tension, questions and complex but deeply flawed characters.
Keri Blakinger

New York Times, 14 October 2015

The characters in Simon Mawer’s latest spy thriller, “Tightrope,” set in the gray, exhausted, murky days of post-World War II England, spend a lot of time in tense encounters that pivot on the issue of who knows what, and who’s telling the truth about it. Jaded, wary, questioning their roles in a world they fought so hard for but now barely recognize, they find that the most precious weapon they have is information — how to deploy it, how to manipulate it, how to extract it.

The author, an experienced British literary novelist whose elegant “The Glass Room” was a Man Booker Prize finalist in 2009, brings a fine sense of story, an intriguing plot and a lovely way with a sentence to “Tightrope.” If it never reaches the sheer ingeniousness of, say, John le Carré’s best work (what does, really?), that’s because Mr. Mawer hasn’t set about building elaborate le Carré-like labyrinths that trap and crush his operatives. Mr. Mawer seems more concerned with how character shapes destiny than vice versa.

“Tightrope” is full of satisfying twists, and we can’t help cheering for its tough, resourceful heroine. She started “Trapeze” as a weak, naïve girl ashamed about her lack of sexual experience; she ends “Tightrope” as a coolly ruthless seductress, a woman who easily betrays and dissembles, a spy capable of planning and orchestrating a small rogue operation of her own.
Sarah Lyall

Kirkus Reviews, 18 August 2015

Mawer (Trapeze, 2012, etc.) dives into the hurricane of evil that was World War II and the Holocaust, examining the horror through Marian Sutro, an agent for Britain's Special Operations Executive whose life later becomes dezimformatsiya personified.

...The story is told through memories half a century later and is related by Sam Wareham, a family friend a decade Marian's junior who's always been enamored of the mysterious and sensual but broken woman. ...Within a mood—weather, vehicles, clandestine meetings—that resonates, Mawer’s pacing is meticulous, detailed rather than slow, never frustrating or boring but rather creating an ominous atmosphere. Marian is drawn to "neither death nor life, but an existence between the two states," but soon, unknowingly, she’s lured into "the spider’s web of intrigue and betrayal" that is Cold War espionage. Marian remains war-fractured and mired in existential crisis, an "awful abyss of indifference," flitting from, or willingly seduced by, lovers with agendas. Mawer’s minor characters linger in the memory, and as with many British writers, he laces the narrative with arcane references and language—benison, anfractuous—making for a fun, intelligent read.

Very much in the vein of John le Carré—a damaged individual trapped in a complex and morally ambiguous international intrigue set on the stage of the early Cold War.

 

Publishers Weekly, 7 September 2015

...Like le Carré, Mawer spins out Marian’s story in an immaculately methodical and suspenseful manner. And in Marian he has created a complex, contradictory heroine, emotionally fragile, endlessly resourceful, and unrepentantly amorous. If the novel is a little too long and too busy, it nevertheless tells a dramatic story about one woman testing the boundaries of loyalty as one kind of war gives way to a shadowy new one.

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