Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2015

Tightrope (2015), by Simon Mawer

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky TightropeIt’s only a day or two since I read Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (see my review) but I liked it so much I went straight to the newly published sequel Tightrope and finished it this morning.

The novel opens many years after the end of the war when Marion Sutro is an elderly woman meeting up again with Sam Wareham, twenty years her junior and still somewhat star-struck by this enigmatic heroine of WW2.  This opening enables Mawer to fill in the backstory so that Tightrope can be read independently of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky which covers her exploits for the British in Occupied France.  The action of the novel then returns to the last year of the war after Marion has escaped from Nazi captivity in Ravensbrück and her journey of physical and mental recovery from torture and trauma.

This novel is not as engaging a thriller as its predecessor, but it’s actually a more thought-provoking book.  I was reminded of the TV series The Bletchley Circle which conveyed so poignantly the way that women who had played important roles in the war were unceremoniously dumped back into the kitchen in the post-war period. The TV series ramps up the irony that the society which had assumed that their intellectual skills were no longer needed, turns out to need their analytical and code-breaking skills to hunt down a serial killer.  In the novel, Marion, now she’s safely back in England but still suffering post-traumatic stress, is expected to restore her appearance, to find herself a young man, and to marry and have children.

But despite her horrific experiences at the hands of the Nazis, Marion still has some unfinished business, and she’s still subject to the lure of doing something exciting and important with her life.  And as the war in Europe ends, the American betrayal of their allies* over the development of the atom bomb gains in significance.  The real-life pacificist and philosopher Bertrand Russell makes an appearance at the fictional Franco-British Pacific Union (‘pacific’ as in ‘peace’), where Marion works, and shocks his listeners when he proposes that – since the Russians won’t agree to any world government to control nuclear weapons unless they run it – there are only three alternatives: an immediate pre-emptive strike on Russia which the US would win; a war between the two superpowers once Russia had acquired her own atom bomb which would cause catastrophic destruction even if the West won; or to do nothing and allow Russian domination of Europe which would be the end of European civilisation.  Russell says that each alternative is worse than its predecessor, i.e. he seems to be suggesting that the US should take the initiative and destroy the Soviets as a power by using A-bombs on major Russian cities like Moscow and St Petersburg (then called Leningrad).

Appalled by the idea of weapons of mass destruction and wracked with guilt about her own contribution to the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Marion and her nuclear scientist brother Ned, face a moral dilemma that still arouses passionate debate today.  What are the ethics of leaking nuclear secrets to the Soviets, to bring forward a stalemate between superpowers so that neither side dare attack the other?  (And as we know, this is what actually happened then, and has happened again more recently when someone enabled Pakistan to get its own bomb, to protect itself from India).

Marion’s double life begins again, complicated by her resurgent love life, and the complex moral dilemmas of the Cold War.  The novel doesn’t have the dramatic tension of wartime espionage but rather the clammy deceit of agents and double-agents; and murky issues of deception and identity when which side the characters are on is not a simple matter of patriotism.   However, the narration muddies the waters a bit: it’s not always quite clear whether it’s being narrated by Sam (who is clearly biased towards Marion and not just during his puppy love phase) or sometimes by a more detached third-person narrator whose point-of-view is Marion’s.

Tightrope reminded me of The Memory Room, one of my favourite books by the late Christopher Koch.  Set in Canberra, The Memory Room explores the effects of secrecy on relationships, and on the mind.  Marion’s dissociative fugue early in her recovery adds to her difficulties in all kinds of relationships – including the one that she has with the enigmatic Mr Fawley who pulls the strings in the world of espionage.  I’m only half-joking when I wonder if spies put in Workcover claims for the damage done to their personal lives…

*One of the books on my must-read list is Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies, in which he apparently argues that the US can’t be relied upon to act in Australia’s interest.  Mawer’s characters’ distrust of the alliance has reminded me to get a copy of it.

Update: See my review of Dangerous Allies here.

Author: Simon Mawer
Title: Tightrope
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2015
ISBN: 9781408706206
Review copy courtesy of Hachette


Fishpond: Tightrope


  1. I saw some very mixed reviews of this when it was published. Seems like you enjoyed it overall despite the confusion at times of who is narrating the story?


    • That surprises me… thought then again, I suppose if one were looking for the usual sort of James Bondish Cold War spy story it would be a disappointment.
      And I wouldn’t say that the doubts about the narrator spoiled the story. It was more of a matter of reflecting on it, and then not being quite sure what to believe. Which accurately reflects what happens in interactions with spies, I suppose!


      • That’s true Lisa, the unreliability of the narrator is part of the world of the spy.


        • I guess that once you know someone was a spy, you can never really believe them again…


  2. […] was when I was reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope (see my review) and came across the part about the American betrayal of its allies in the late stages of WW2, that […]


  3. […] Tightrope by Simon Mawer (Little,Brown) (see my review) […]


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