I did not particularly care for Code Name: Verity


For ages, people have been telling me to read Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name: Verity. Well now I’ve read it, and I definitely see why people like it. It has an engaging voice, a suspenseful situation, and some nice historical detail. But I didn’t like it, because I felt like the novel didn’t really respect my intelligence as a reader. Okay, so, the basic frame of the story is that it’s being told by a spy who’s been captured during WWII and has cracked under torture and is spilling all her secrets in the form of a written confession.

Spoilers follow. Although really, they shouldn’t be spoilers to anyone reading the book with open eyes.

Okay, so obviously she’s not really confessing all her secrets. We know that, because this is a YA novel and we’re familiar with how YA novels work. And even if we weren’t familiar, we’d know it the first or second time we encounter one of the mysterious underlined passages. Or when we start to think about the weird code that precedes each chapter. Obviously something else is going on; obviously she’s sending out some kind of code to somebody.

Which is fine. Personally, I’d be a little bit more interested if the book was about someone who cracked under torture. Because the truth is that people crack, you know. It’s not a matter of will-power. The qualities that make someone a daring and honest and cunning soldier or spy are not necessarily compatible with the kind of stolidity and determination that would be needed to survive even simple tortures like sleep deprivation and prolonged solitary confinement.

But given that the most readers knows within ten pages that the book, I think the book should at least know that the reader knows. That’s one of the things that I liked about Gone Girl. That was a suspense novel that understood reader expectations and consciously subverted them. Most readers probably suspected that the wife wasn’t really dead, so the book revealed that in the Table of Contents. It was a book that dug a bit deeper for its surprises.

Code Name: Verity does not do that. You have to read through 2/3rds of the book before you figure out what the secret is. And when you finally get there, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Now, I am not a reader who normally cares about plot or suspense. I frequently flip to the end of the book and read it before I’ve read the middle, just because I get tired of being in the dark. And I rarely see big plot twists coming or attempt to guess the identity of the murderer. I just don’t care about those things.

And if a book is honestly not that plot-driven–if it’s just about coming of age in wartime (and doing some spy shit) then that’s fine. So if this weak plot twist bothered me, then I’m surprised it didn’t bother more people.

I also think it really weakens when the author tries to hold onto a weak plot twist. If the book had just come out in chapter three and winked at the reader and said, “Obviously, all is not what it seems here,” then the writing could’ve been so much more subversive and playful. We could’ve seen all the places where the narrator was lying and fudging things. Instead, because the writing had to maintain at least the possibility that this was a truthful account, it ended up feeling watered down. It’s hard to write a first-person account in such a way that it fits two different radically interpretations of the character. Agatha Christie does it, but her solution is to make her characters incredibly flat and boring. Which she justifies with the jawdroppingness of her twists. Here, no jaws were dropped.