Updated: Feb 26, 2019
“I must lie down where all the ladders start. In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
A thrilling novel about the queen of spies, The Alice Network is a story about women finding their place in the world during and after devastating wars.
The book follows Eve Gardner, a spy during World War One, and Charlie St. Clair, an American debutante suffering in the aftermath of World War Two. They are connected by a shadowy figure from the past as these two brash women come together through heartbreaking circumstances to avenge decades-old wrongs.
I have such a soft spot for war novels, and especially about women in war and especially about women spies during war, so The Alice Network was essentially made for me. It reminded me a great deal of one of my favourite books of all-time, Code Name Verity, in both subject matter and the strong female characters. (For lovers of that amazing book, I plan to reread and blog about soon!)
One of the themes of the book is how women struggle to contribute meaningfully during wartimes. Eve Gardner, an intelligent and talented young woman limited by a stutter, is constantly overlooked until she is spotted by someone who notices potential in how much she is overlooked. She jumps at the chance to spy for England and is shipped off to Lille to serve at a restaurant owned by a French collaborateur.
Decades later, wealthy genteel Charlie St. Clair finds herself in an awkward situation: young, unmarried and pregnant, she is exiled to Switzerland to take care of her little problem. She is struggling with grief after World War Two claimed her brother, who returned home from the Pacific theatre a broken man who swallowed his own gun. In defiance of her parents she runs away in Europe on a desperate search for her beloved cousin who went missing in occupied France years earlier.
How women use their sexuality and the shame that is awarded to women who are sexual is explored a great deal in The Alice Network. Charlie is dealing with an unwed pregnancy, and the resulting stigma which came in 1947. Even her father dismisses her as a whore.
Eve has an even more difficult tightrope to walk. As a female spy, she was forced to use her sexuality in order to complete her mission, and had to hide it or be condemned for it. Women who used their sexuality were considered devious, even by their own side.
“If a woman surrenders her virtue to an enemy, they are confident her patriotism can’t be far behind. They have very little faith in any woman’s ability to resist falling in love with a man who beds her. Besides, a horizontale isn’t respectable, and a spy’s business is already disreputable enough. We can’t bring shame on our country by staining our reputation – if we’re to engage in espionage, we must do it as ladies.”
Women were viewed as untrustworthy and easily influenced by the men in charge, even though the strength and determination of these women shines through the novel. Especially the spies that were the backbone of the real life WWI Alice Network, the women face impossible situations using their guts, their daring and, yes, their sexuality if necessary. The burdens they assumed and the sacrifices they made are unimaginable, and yet still they are viewed as fragile and are expected to return to their position in the home when the war ends.
Above all, this is a novel about bravery. Eve’s courage is palpable, as she walks into the enemy’s den every day – and every night – without flinching. The betrayal that takes her down in the end leaves her crippled and bitter, and yet she does not choose to take her life as others do around in similar situations. Her choice to abide in her defeat allows her to find redemption in the end.
There are different kinds of courage, as there are many different situations and many different choices that can be made in life. Charlie chooses to walk away from an easy life, where all her decisions have already been made for her. Her frantic mission sees her recreating herself, as well as her place in the world, and in some ways there’s nothing more brave than that.
A poignant page-turner and also very well-researched, this book can’t come more highly recommended. You’ll find me over here in the corner reading more about amazing female spies!