Genre: Historical thriller, historical fiction
Content Warnings: war, death, violence, period-typical sexism, racism, and homophobia, Nazis, antisemitism
Perfect for when you're in the mood for: a slowly unravelling, non-linear tale of loss and hardship.
Had Dad lied to us? Maybe not openly, maybe not directly, but even so, there’s a deception here.
Non-linear narratives can be difficult to pull off, moreso when you’re dealing with a tale as convoluted as the one presented in The Paris Agent, where two of the primary characters are partially based off of real people and the chaos of espionage, war, government secrecy and trauma both physical and mental often obscure the true events of the plot, leaving you with a somewhat similar feeling to what Charlotte experiences in the beginning of the book – confusion and distrust. Due to the slow drip feed of information, I ended up disliking one of the main characters for a significant portion of the book due to an unfair assessment of her character.
Once you’re able to parse the narrative (I have to recommend keeping a page of notes to keep track of everything), the book becomes significantly more enjoyable as you follow each of the women’s search for answers in their respective eras, engaging with the disinformation employed by spy campaigns during the war and afterwards. Josie and Eloise (two women spies who use various aliases throughout the novel, which can be a bit hard to keep track of) go through risky and gruelling experiences during the war that are simultaneously thrilling and tragic, as we are given the knowledge early on that they are both most likely dead. Subsequently, you’re left with a creeping sense of dread as you uncover the truth of what happened to them alongside Charlotte, the daughter of a war veteran named Noah, whose life was entangled with both of theirs. The spies’ final scenes are heart wrenching, especially when immediately followed by Charlotte’s optimistic ending, despite her own emotional journey.
The book also proposes interesting discussions about the nature of WWII and the horrors committed on all sides, while acknowledging the faults and flaws of all sides and not placing one ‘side’ of the war as a solid ‘victim’ – instead, the individual people within the war are framed as victims, the ones actively fighting back against the fascism and death being forced upon them, and nonetheless try to take a stand within their personal abilities to do so. Early in the book, Eloise is forced to socialise with a group of young Nazi soldiers, where she resolutely muses that though she held sympathy for the conscripted children, they were still ultimately participating in and aiding a system that had killed millions, including her own husband.
It made no difference if the man who shot down my husband’s plane at El Alamein was young or respectful or even conscripted against his will. Giles was still dead… I was playing along with the charade so that later, I could wreak havoc upon these men and everything they stood for.
I do, unfortunately, have some personal gripes with aspects of the story. For one, the novel often provides random WWII trivia with little-to-no reason for it, as if to simply legitimise the setting, which drew me out of the narrative a few times with how jarringly it was included. One particularly egregious example early on, involved Eloise noting to herself that she’d memorised the names and uniforms of all Nazi military operations as part of her spy training. She then proceeded to immediately list the names of each of those groups, and nothing more came of this piece of information aside from a brief encounter with a Nazi colonel (the introduction to the same scene I praised above for its nuanced discussion, ironically).
Gold braiding on his uniform, two pips. I clocked him instantly as a Wehrmacht colonel…
Besides that, I also found a slight ick with the way all of the main characters had their lives revolve around and defined by men nearly entirely. Eloise is entirely motivated by her wish to avenge her husband, which oftentimes eclipses her other (far more interesting) motivation to protect her young child living with her mother. Josie’s thoughts often stray to her love for Noah, even at the most awkward or serious of moments, which while I believe was intended to be read as her seeking comfort in the worst of times, instead comes off as her simply not caring for the horrors around her. Charlotte, consumed by grief, instead hyperfocuses on her father’s issues, which in turn introduces her to her future love interest, and shapes the entirety of her arc throughout the book.
Ultimately, while I personally had some issues with the Paris Agent that made my reading experience unenjoyable, the story was overall intriguing and educational, with nuanced discussions of issues surrounding war and a good amount of suspense, tragedy and hope to balance its subject matter. It’s also important to keep in mind that most elements of the plot were inspired by real events and people, including the protagonists, as listed in its final pages, and to take that into account when engaging with certain moments throughout the story. It’s definitely a solid read, just not my cup of tea.