The Woman with No Name: A Novel

Image of The Woman with No Name: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
Sourcebooks Landmark
Reviewed by: 

Based on a true story, The Woman with No Name follows the trajectory of the woman who is recruited as Britain's first female sabotage agent during the German occupation of France in World War II.

A small woman with a plucky personality and an aptitude for explosives, Yvonne sets herself apart with the successes of her sabotages, her attention to detail, and her careful and discreet manner. Inwardly, she is determined to create physical distractions and disturbances that will slow the Nazi effort, such as blowing up bridges and trains, stopping Nazi traffic along major roads, coordinating “drops,” and delivering ammunition and supplies to the friendly French network. She must carefully interface with brave locals who are also part of the underground war effort—without being suspected or discovered.

The novel begins with a backstory Prologue in Paris, 1942, from the first-person point of view of Yvonne Rudellat, a woman at a crossroads in her life. A phone conversation with her scolding mother reveals details of her failing marriage, her new love, her daughter. The scene of a car accident shortly afterward pins her young daughter, Jacqueline, under a car in a crash scene. Presumably, the reader is now sucked into the plot and emotionally on side with the protagonist. 

It makes sense—in theory. However, in the next chapter, which takes place 14 years later, as the female narrator protests the prevailing societal lack of confidence in women as spies and members of the resistance, and resolves to prove herself against these lagging expectations, the book continues with its promising premise. Jacqueline/Yvonne adopts a special agent name of Jacqueline (after her daughter); and the entire novel takes place when she is known to the local French resistance community as Jacqueline.

There are compelling passages when Jacqueline describes the prep details of each bombing expedition, or the drops of ammunition and supplies to the French resistance on moonlit nights into fields hidden from exposure by surrounding forests. Research into physical details and logistics about what these resistance missions involved and why and how they were conducted, is evident in the events that make up the story. Somehow, though, the story feels predictable, and the whole of it seems a bit flat. With each new mission that Jacqueline attempts, this novel could be riveting with suspense, but it somehow becomes an example of the sometimes-pitfalls of Historical Fiction as a genre: it’s straightforward to make your way into a story that shines with research, while neglecting the heart and the true passion of its writer.

Although interesting and informative, The Woman with No Name seldom elevates itself above its details. It is a simply told story without the elegance of literary language, or the grit, the heart, the belief, and the emotional commitment of a character you’d go to battle for. And the protagonist tells her readers what is going on inside her mind, and we hear her explanations for why she will be braver than anyone else, or how afraid she is—without discovering these emotions for ourselves through her actions and/or adventures or even the tone of the narrative.

One of the first rules of storytelling—show don’t tell—could be emphasized here with effect. (One exception to this was the scene of Jacqueline/Yvonne leaping into a lake during training exercises when she didn’t know how to swim). And yet, Jacqueline’s determination to succeed in the resistance at any cost, this very determination that propels her to become an agent in the first place, somehow dilutes her own human feelings of fear and panic—and perhaps the reader’s, too.

Each chapter starts up with the title of the town or city where the action takes place, and the date. This way the reader can keep up with the switching of backstories and forward to episodes that relate to the current action of the book. Logistics of the forward action, via the title, the date, and the location at the head of each chapter were sometimes confusing; perhaps this was one reason for low impact suspense—or even distant levels of caring for this character, when we really wanted to be rooting for her.

The ending pulls back from the action; the distance of this approach thus shielding the reader from the close-up realities that the main characters had to face. The story was over before it had a chance to get under the skin.

The book is written by a duo of women writers whose collective pen name is Audrey Blake.