Friday, March 18, 2016
Review of A Life In Secrets: The Story Of Vera Atkins And The Lost Agents Of SOE by Sarah Helm (2005, Abacus)
Sarah Helm’s book explores Vera’s life and in particular her role in SOE and her post-war quest. The book is divided into three parts. The first part concerns Vera’s time in SOE during the war, the setting up of agent networks in France, and the disastrous handling of the Prosper and related networks in which London was expertly played through a ‘radio game’ in which the Germans broadcast through captured wireless sets and fresh agents were parachuted into their waiting hands. The second part concerns Vera’s life before the war and her move to Britain. The third part details Vera’s attempt to track down what happened to her agents and to seek justice for them. What is clear from the outset is that Vera Atkins spent her life creating a carefully managed story about herself and her work. And despite living a full and eventful life, she was guarded, manipulative, and often quite cold. While respectful to Vera’s memory, Helm also exposes her secrets, dispelling the myths she created. The story of the agents is both tragic and poignant.
Helm tries to enliven the text a little by describing her research; her various interactions with those that knew her and the families of SOE agents, her journeys to track down sources and view the places that Vera had lived/visited, and her searching and sifting through various archives. The insertion of the author into the narrative runs counter to usual biographical/historical accounts and while it does provide some context as to why Helm draws the conclusions that she does it’s also a little tedious at times and pads the text. Nonetheless, it is clear that Helm has undertaken a very large amount of research and her deductions seem sound. The result is an interesting account of secretive woman who was involved in secretive work and the female agents she sent into the field.