If you enjoy learning about real historical events through gripping fiction, read “One Woman’s War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny” by Christine Wells. It’s about the famous WWII espionage operation called Operation Mincemeat. I first read about it in a children’s nonfiction book about spy stuff, and Netflix has a new movie, Operation Mincemeat, about that same scheme. The premise seems so outlandish that it’s brilliant. Take a dead body, dress it in a military uniform with identity papers, and handcuff a briefcase filled with real-looking secret documents about the Allied plans to the corpse’s wrist. Make sure Spanish officials will find the body with the fake documents, and the Germans will be sure to be informed. (For more on German involvement in the Spanish Civil War see also “The Girl from Guernica.”)
The narrative in this action-filled novel is presented from two women’s points of view. Paddy Bennett is the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s brilliant Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame. Paddy worked with Fleming for British Naval Intelligence during the war, and she was a socialite from a well-to-do family. The other woman who is important in this story is Friedl Stöttinger, an Austrian double agent. Her story is the one with which Wells admits she took the greatest liberties, but she stuck to the facts as much as possible with regard to Paddy’s actions. Through those actions, we see the dichotomy regarding the importance of women’s efforts during the war and how they were relegated back to “womanly” pursuits after the war.
The novel is gripping, and as we read about both women and their wartime efforts, we feel empathy for them and the sometimes difficult decisions they had to make. Paddy especially, born upper class, works long hours and is completely dedicated to her job. We see clearly how at that time, once a woman married, all efforts at a career were halted, no matter how much she loved her job. Thus, when Paddy eventually marries a man she loves very much, she must quit the job that she adores. In a very unusual twist, her supervisors ask her to return to work—albeit in secret—to help with the very plan that she had ridiculed when it was first broached by Fleming: Operation Mincemeat.
What we come away with after reading this lovely piece of historical fiction is, in addition to seeing British bravery and ingenuity, a study of how the British, at least the upper class British who could afford to, celebrated life in the middle of bombings and death, enjoying life for as long as they had it. Drinking, partying, and living to excess became the norm for many young people. We also feel very much a part of British life through the dialogue and the very British terms of affection that give the narrative authenticity. “Old chap” and “darling” are generously strewn throughout. We also see the British stoicism, cracking jokes in the midst of bombing and putting on a brave face no matter what.
Wells’ writing is historical fiction at its best, and her previous novel, “Sisters of the Resistance,” is no different. It’s just as engrossing and fascinating as this one about Operation Mincemeat and Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny. The details Wells includes ingeniously seem to take us into the very rooms where the war efforts were taking place, describing the people and their mannerisms. It’s both fascinating and gripping.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.