Tightrope - UK Reviews
Published by Little, Brown, June 2015
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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)