Since with CBR6 I dropped the ball and didn’t regularly contribute, I can’t possibly expect regular Cannonballers to recall that I have a penchant for World War II stories, badass ladies, and intrigue. Suffice it to say, I do, so when my book club chose to read Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville I was stoked. While at times tedious, the biography delivers all my jams, in spades!
I won’t go into too many of the historical details about Christine’s birth in Poland in 1908 as Krystyna Skarbek. For one thing, all the names related to her early years are Polish and impossible to spell (or pronounce in one’s head) unless you grew up in a family of Polish descent. Which I did not. Additionally, I found this portion of the book the hardest to read. Mulley goes to great lengths to explain Christine’s heritage and upbringing and though I am sure that had a strong effect on her and her later personality, I found it tedious and dull.
The interesting portion of Christine’s life begins in 1939 when Germany invades her beloved home of Poland. Things aren’t so bad at first for Christine, though they are quite horrible for the country overall. If this book did nothing else I still would have been left with an increased knowledge of how horribly the Poles were treated by both the Nazis and the Allied nations in the end. One detail Mulley includes that stuck with me is that for every German soldier killed, the Nazis would bring out 100 random Poles and shoot them. Toward the end of the book, there’s some statistic like at the end of WWII, Poland had lost 6 million citizens alone. That’s the numbers we’re given for the Holocaust. This number includes some of those but holy shit! It’s been quite a while since I’ve studied the war, but I don’t recall there being much focus on Poland aside from it being the country Hitler invades to begin the fighting. Naturally being first, they were the longest occupied and logically would have endured the most suffering, it’s just that this book is filled with stories of atrocities to the Polish people that we just don’t hear about very often.
Christine makes her way out of Poland for safety (she is half Jewish after all) and begins to yearn for ways to help. I can’t recall the details but she somehow ends up getting a job with British intelligence, spreading propaganda for the English wherever she can. She skis into Poland through the Alps to deliver it, dodging German soldiers and wintry weather. I can’t even begin to list the ways she’s a complete badass. In one encounter with the German soldiers, she quickly uses the silk map that certainly would have gotten her shot on the spot as a headscarf, right under their noses. She was cool under pressure, loved adventure and especially danger, and had a fierce desire to help her home country at any cost.
Mulley writes Christine’s story with a lot of details and one begins to empathize easily with Christine. When she’s bored, waiting for missions in Cairo, you are too. I think that’s really the only negative thing I have to say about this book – sometimes it gets too wordy or textbook-like, throwing so much detail into the mix. I think that Mulley obviously admires her subject so much that she wants us to know everything about this woman – the first British female spy for WWII. She did so much for the Allied cause and was treated so abominably because of her gender or her heritage (Jewish, Polish – take your pick), it seems like she deserves such a thorough treatment, I just wanted it to be written more like a novel than it is.