Thursday, May 21, 2020

Imogen Kealey's Liberation, an action-adventure thriller featuring WWII heroine Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake, the WWII resistance heroine who died in 2011, age 98, has been having a moment. Satisfying readers’ hunger for fiction about real-life women from the 20th century, several novelists have been inspired by her daring accomplishments, including Ariel Lawhon (Code Name Hélène). Now Imogen Kealey offers their own version in the novel Liberation.

Wake was made of stronger fiber than most of us. After witnessing atrocities in Vienna in the ‘30s, she determined to do her utmost to obliterate the Nazi regime. As an agent with Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) operating in the Auvergne region of central France, she organized and trained local resistance fighters (maquisards): arming them, arranging for supply drops from Britain alongside wireless operator Denis Rake, and disrupting the German supply lines in advance of D-Day. Following the war, she received multiple honors from the UK and France as well as from Australia, her adopted country, and New Zealand, where she was born.

“Imogen Kealey” is the pseudonym for Hollywood screenwriter Darby Kealey and British novelist Imogen Robertson, and their jointly written novel is unabashedly a thriller; its fast-paced, suspenseful scenes should fulfill anyone’s desire for an adrenaline rush. It opens in 1943 as Nancy, concealing herself amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Marseille’s Old Quarter, narrowly escapes the German patrol, who don’t realize that one of their prime targets – the so-called “White Mouse,” Nancy herself – is nearby. Following this close call, she returns home to prepare for her wedding to rich industrialist Henri Fiocca. Later, needing to leave France quickly, she valiantly pursues her mission to fight against Nazi dominance all the while knowing she’s left her beloved husband in danger.

Many episodes taken from Nancy’s return to France as an agent are excitingly described in the novel’s pages, from her ongoing difficulties in convincing the maquisard leader, Gaspard, that she, a woman, deserves to be in charge; to her awe-inspiring bicycle ride, traveling 500km in three days to locate a radio operator for re-establishing contact with Britain for future supply drops.

That said, the fictional liberties taken in Liberation are numerous and explained over three pages in the author’s note. For example, by 1943, Nanci and Henri had already been married for several years. Many other aspects of the timeline are rearranged for dramatic purposes, and one critical member of her three-person team, agent John Hind Farmer (“Hubert”), is omitted. While Nancy shows vulnerability in her constant worry about her husband’s safety, and she’s internally tough and fond of swearing, as she was in life, there’s little evidence of the “irrepressible, infectious, high spirits [that] were a joy to everyone who worked with her,” as recounted by the SOE’s official historian. Her cover name of “Madame Andree” isn’t used; puzzlingly, Nancy gives out her real name freely throughout her covert resistance activities.

While this story may appeal to readers wanting a suspenseful action-adventure novel, those interested in the historical Nancy Wake should pay close attention to the author’s note and follow up with their own research (there’s a forthcoming movie based on this book, too). For fiction readers seeking more nuanced character depictions and stronger adherence to biographical details, Code Name Hélène will be a better option.

Liberation was published on April 28 by Grand Central; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.


  1. I think I'm glad I read Code Name Helene instead of this one; believe I'll pass on it. Too bad Lawhon's book wasn't chosen for the movie, it would have been good as a film. Although not sure who I'd cast as Nancy...

    1. Anne Hathaway has signed on to be producer of the film. I haven't read anything about who's starring in it yet.

  2. Anonymous2:52 PM

    Hmm, I wonder why novels on the same characters are being published more often . . .

    Sarah OL

    1. With the strong WWII focus these days, Nancy Wake is a natural choice of subject. I guess all the authors were thinking along similar lines.