Well, Elizabeth Wein has done it again. This companion novel to Code Name Verity was just as difficult to put down and just as heart-wrenching. It stands on its own feet as an independent book, but any fan of her first novel should absolutely read this one, as a number of the characters from Code Name Verity reappear and we get to see how their lives progress.
One of the reasons this book worked so well separate from its companion was because the narrator was such an independent protagonist in her own right. Rose Justice isn't a repeat of Verity, and while she is friends with Maddie, she has little in common with Maddie either beyond the fact that both are pilots. Rose is introduced to us as an American, bubbly and vivacious, outgoing and always willing to speak her mind (even when it betrays her as being somewhat judgmental). She is terrified of the flying bombs, but despite her fear, Rose is eager to take a more active role in the war, and isn't above using her family connections to pull some strings in order to have one.
The trouble starts after Rose ferries her well-connected uncle to Paris shortly after its liberation from the Nazis. Rose never makes it home. Instead, she simply disappears, like so many others in this war. We see a few letters written between her friends and family as they try to process their terrible grief - as Maddie said prophetically to Rose earlier in the book about Verity, "If there hadn't been a fight, the Nazis would have shipped her off in the dark to a concentration camp and never told anyone - that would have been worse. It doesn't seem possible, but it would have been worse." But we readers don't have quite enough time to come to grips with this sorrow and worry, because a mere few pages later and Rose reappears to us, having escaped from her ordeal and staying in a hotel room in Paris, where she begins recording her story in her diary as a coping mechanism.
In a way, this novel feels more mature than Code Name Verity because it doesn't rely on its predecessor's narrative tricks. We're not left wondering what's true and what's not of the words we read. We know that Rose ended up in a concentration camp, and we know that she escaped and is now safe, and we know that she escaped with two friends but got separated from them. There's little mystery to solve, so the focus can truly be on the horrors of the experience. And wow, is it terrifying and haunting and moving. Ravensbruck wasn't a death camp like Auschwitz, but thousands of people died or were murdered there. Despite the dehumanization caused by the guards' treatment of the imprisoned women, the friendships that grew between the prisoners and the way they were able to take care of each other were deeply inspirational. It's a shocking book, but it's not intended as a shocking expose of the terrible conditions in a concentration camp (even though yes, this book was well-researched, and all these details were true - that's perhaps the most horrifying thought). Instead, the novel is about relationships and hope and story-telling. Rose writes poetry, sometimes comic, sometimes devastating - it's sprinkled throughout these pages - and her poems provide such comfort for her new friends that they will quite literally give her bread (going without themselves) as a thank-you for sharing them. This book is worth the reading for these poems alone.
I thought the book would end with their escape, but it didn't. Instead, there's another almost sixty pages about how these brave women recover, reclaim their lives, and live out their promise to "tell the world." This final section seemed slow as I read it, but also stuck with me the most. Several women's stories are wrapped up, but others are only beginning, as they recapture their identities or, more movingly, have their first chance to create their own, separate from their experiences in captivity. I'm all weepy again just flipping through the last couple of pages.
Go read this book.