By Ekta R. Garg
February 3, 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Release date: February 9, 2021
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
A female spy for the Allies during World War II must remain vigilant against the memories of those she lost. As she moves from place to place, she finds herself improvising her way through challenges and bolstering the spirits of people who no longer believe in deliverance from the Nazis. Author Erika Robuck returns with the profile of another incredible woman in history in the brisk, efficient novel The Invisible Woman.
In March of 1944, Virginia Hall is going back to France, and she’s living on borrowed time. Most people survive an average of six weeks in the field as a “pianist” before getting caught. A key part of the resistance against the Nazis, a pianist uses wireless radios to transmit information back to London regarding covert agents in the field. The Germans keep a vigilant ear out for anti-Nazi transmissions and arrest anyone sending them.
Pianists also make sure agents receive the supplies they need. Often this means coordinating a “drop,” a middle-of-the-night fly-by when Allied planes sweep across open spots decided by the pianist and actually shove cargo out their doors. Drops include everything from weapons to food, personal packages to messages.
Despite the danger, Virginia is almost desperate to begin. She lost one team of agents in Lyon, France, and feels immense guilt for being one of the few survivors. Years earlier she lost part of her leg in a shooting accident, and her prosthetic leg makes her limp when she’s overly tired or in too much pain. After Lyon the Gestapo put a price on her head and nicknamed her the “Limping Lady.” For that, if nothing else, she wants to fight against them.
She’s sent to a small town in France for her first job as a pianist, disguising herself as an old woman and using only code names with other agents as they’ve been trained. Not all the other agents are as skilled, trained, or careful as Virginia, and she fights to maintain an emotional distance from them. She didn’t know how attached she was to her team in Lyon until they were captured, and she can’t risk that again.
Even with these safety measures around her heart, Virginia can’t help connecting with the people she meets. They include a young boy who uses his wagon to drop weapons at remote locations to resistance fighters; a confused veteran of the Great War who suspects her of treachery; two young agents who, even with the backdrop of danger, have fallen in love and gotten engaged; and a whole host of Jewish children being smuggled to a sleepy village to keep them from the concentration camps.
Virginia works with other agents, trains teenage boys how to blow up bridges used by the Nazis for transport, and reassures people the Allies are, indeed, coming. After years of promises, many French citizens don’t believe it. By her example and by her words, Virginia helps them witness Liberation.
Author Erika Robuck shares in a note that one of her greatest challenges in writing this book was making Virginia Hall likeable. Virginia does, in fact, come across as likeable but also as brusque and even a little stand-offish. The title makes sense on many levels; in some situations it feels like Virginia is hiding even from herself.
On an intellectual level Virginia’s distance make sense, though, and Robuck does justice to the danger of the era. As an amputee marked by the Gestapo, Virginia takes a greater risk than most by continuing her work with the intelligence community. She never loses sight of the ultimate goal, however, making her a real-life inspiration for anyone struggling under oppression.
At times Virginia stops in her tracks for a vivid recollection of past assignments and agents, a convenient method but overly obvious way of giving readers back story. Also, while she goes on different assignments throughout the book, her way of keeping everyone—including readers—at arms’ length makes it all feel like one continuous mission. Fans of WWII fiction may not mind so much, because ultimately the mission was to defeat the Nazis. Robuck’s descriptions are lovely, and she does justice to this real-life heroine of war. I recommend readers Borrow The Invisible Woman.