Book Review | Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

28 December 2020


I'm always drawn to books about real people who actually lived and did amazing things. Especially individuals whom I've not heard so much about in my own study of history. I think fiction is a great tool to get people more interested in different historical characters and periods of history that are typically left out of history curriculum in school. You can get so invested in the fictionalized character that you start your own research to learn even more.

I've read a lot of books about historical figures recently. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, The Engineer's Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood, and I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon. While the former two were very lack luster to me, I Was Anastasia was a book that surprised me. It was a book I was feeling lukewarm about until the end when everything came together and made sense. It blew my mind! It's a book I find myself thinking about all the time, and I've been wanting to reread it and pick up more from the author.

I picked up Code Name Hélène not only because it's written by the same author of I Was Anastasia, but also because it's about a female French resistance spy I had never heard of before. This book follows the life and legacy of Nancy Wake Fiocca, also known under several code names throughout her career as a spy, including The White Mouse and Hélène. The timeline of the book jumps back and forth, showing the beginning of her career, her relationship with her husband, and the details of her missions and those she worked with.

My favorite part of this book was the relationships between the characters. I loved Henri, Nancy's husband, so much and how Ariel Lawhon built up their relationship. I wanted so much more from Henri and was sad that there was only a handful of chapters in his perspective. I also liked the dynamic between Nancy and her comrades and how those relationships grew throughout the book.

However, I did not care so much for Nancy's perspective. I think it could have been great, but her narrative read too much like a modern feminist to me. Not to say that's a bad thing. Again, I don't know much about Nancy or her history apart from this book, maybe she did talk and think like she does in the book. But I've noticed that there's a generic "strong female" narrative voice that is used a lot in these type of books. It was used in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and The Engineer's Wife as well. And while all the figures characterized in these books are for sure strong, inspiring women, that doesn't mean they all think in the same modern standards of feminism with the same snarky internal monologue. I just have a problem with it because this narrative style is so overdone, and it feels like a copout from exploring the way women in those situations would have actually felt and thought in their own time period and historical context.

Another small thing that bothered me with this book was the timeline. I think Ariel Lawhon was trying to duplicate what she did in I Was Anastasia, going back and forth in time. And while that worked super well in the previous book, this time it just made the whole flow of the book so confusing and jagged to me. Her missions in the past and future began to blur together, and I could not for the life of me figure out which was which and what was going on. That could be my fault for not paying attention, but I ultimately think that either a chronological timeline with a more duel perspective with Henri would have been more affective.

I will say that once again Ariel Lawhon hit hard with the ending. I actually looked up Nancy Wake Fiocca before finishing the book, and when I found out what the ending would be I almost didn't want to keep reading because I knew it would be emotional. I also really liked the look into the French resistance. I know World War II fiction is almost too overdone at this point, but I still enjoy learning from this time period. There are always gems in the topic, and so much to learn. I'm amazed at how many layers there are to the war. 

While I unfortunately did not enjoy this book quite as much as I hoped to, it's still a good book. If you're into this type of story, I'm sure you will absolutely love it! I will continue to pick up more from the author, and of course learn more about Nancy and her incredible life.

Rating: ★


  1. Historical nonfiction might be my favorite genre of literature. I mean, a book that reads like a novel but is about stuff that actually happened? Yes, please.

    It does seem like a lot of "strong, female" characters in historical settings seem to have the same fierce, snarky internal dialogue. Which, I agree, is unrealistic. The meaning of the term "feminist" (or its historical equivalent) has changed a lot over time, and to make a woman in historical times react to things the same way a modern woman would, is not accurate in my opinion.

    I Was Anastasia sounds like a good book. I might have to check it out :D

    I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day!

    ~ Scarlett | An Attempt at Authenticity

    1. I'm so glad you understand where I'm coming from with that critique! I was worried people wouldn't understand what I was talking about. But yes, I Was Anastasia is amazing!