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‘Tightrope’ review: Cold War tale with complex characters

"Tightrope" by Simon Mawer is out now from Other Press.other press

“Tightrope” by Simon Mawer is out now from Other Press.

“Tightrope” is a bit like a game of chess.

It starts out slow and at first the characters feel interchangeable. Then, about a quarter of the way in, it suddenly turns into an intense story with unpredictable moving pieces that seem headed for a tragic fate.

The chess-like feel is apt for the new Simon Mawer novel, as the game becomes a recurring metaphor weaving its way throughout the book.

Released Tuesday, “Tightrope” opens in the present day, when Samuel — the narrator — pays a visit to the book’s central character, an aging family friend (and former crush) named Marian Sutro.

“The whole damn story,” Samuel warns us, “is riddled with clichés, heroine being one of them. Traitor being another.”

From that ominous introduction, the story plunges back in time to 1945. Sutro has just gotten out of Ravensbrück, where she spent nearly two years imprisoned after being captured while working as an undercover agent.

After the war, Sutro comes home and tries to rebuild her life, still shaken and damaged from the years of espionage and torture.

She’s suffering from fugue states and flashbacks, and eventually we learn about the one back alley deed that continues to haunt her.

Her family treats her like a child, or at least like a breakable vase, but we soon realize that Sutro is anything but. Even at her most fragile, she’s much tougher than she seems.

The war is over, but she’s still filled with secrets. And though she seems ready to settle into a normal civilian life, old habits die hard: Before long, Sutro is pulled into Cold War-era espionage.

She takes on a regular job, but soon enough her handler from the war days makes contact with her, his trusty young spy who never betrayed her country even while being tortured. Now, though, she’s not a naive 18-year-old and has her own motives and alliances, so things play out a little differently.

With gay characters and a promiscuous heroine, the book sees the past through a more modern lens – although at times the repercussions of Sutro’s sexuality are troubling. She’s a full character and an ostensibly admirable war heroine, but in the manner of an easily dismissible trollop, some of her worst decisions are made because she can’t – or won’t – keep her legs shut.

It is written with all the regret of a war novel, but the themes are equally applicable to times of peace. In telling the tale of mid-century Europe, Mawer explores whether it’s OK to do bad things for a good cause; what, exactly, is the value of loyalty and at what point the innocent victim crosses over to become the bad guy.

For the first 100 or so pages, it feels like the book is still waiting to begin — but it’s well worth the wait. By the end, “Tightrope” is a page-turner filled with tension, questions and complex but deeply flawed characters. 

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Music & Arts – NY Daily News

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