whitefox (2022) ISBN 9781915036131
Reviewed by Imran Mahmood 

Noor Inayat Khan, the British resistance fighter, sent into France by the Special Operations Executive, is such a remarkable heroine that it is no surprise that Jameson chose her as the beating heart of his debut novel, Codename: Madeleine.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Noor, the daughter of a Sufi mystic, and talented harpist was redeployed in war-time as a wireless operator in occupied France. It was a staggeringly dangerous mission and Noor, with her guileless almost child-like innocence, was not an easy choice for the job. She turned out, however, to be an extremely astute one that undoubtedly saved countless lives. For most people picking up the book, the ending is not really susceptible to spoilers. Noor’s bravery under interrogation (torture) has become legend, but that does not in any way dilute Jameson’s re-telling of her story. It takes a strong stomach to bear the indignities she suffered, with her, but by the end, acting as her witness feels not just necessary but also like something of a privilege.

Jameson fictionalises Noor’s story in a way that leaves no doubt how deeply moved he himself was by it and there are moments of real beauty in the prose as if to reflect that. Scenes are set beautifully and the dialogue captures time and place in a way that feels authentic and immediate. In one scene, Jameson describes what Noor’s father sees in the London skies one night in 1915. ‘And for a moment Inayat Khan’s world spun upside down. The sky was the sea. London lay on the ocean floor. The stars were crests on the waves above. A vast grey shadow moved across the water. It was the shape of a whale. It slowed. Lights fell from the shadow’s belly. They exploded into phosphorescence as they hit the ocean floor.’ Zeppelins never were so elegantly described.

And Codename: Madeleine is not just a one-man (woman) show. It features a dizzying array of characters, from Treasure, the courtesan, Leo a mathematics prodigy all the way to Morel, a French soldier wounded in the course of World War I. Morel, as a result of a bullet to the head, has to have part of his skull reconstructed with a metal plate. For me he is one of the most moving and well-drawn characters in the novel. There is an ever-present vapour trail of melancholy whenever he enters the scene but space is always made for lightness. When Morel is offered the job of moving Bugattis around a showroom, his future employer quips in reference to his metal pate ‘How could a pair of racing drivers refuse a man with a built-in crash helmet?’

The roll-call of characters does not stop there. We encounter a barrister, racing driver, high-ranking German officers, some cruel, one heroic, antique booksellers – even Rumi has a part to play. Each one has a story to tell. Each one of their stories intersects with the others with real precision.

This is a bold and ambitious debut from Jameson. In order to unpick the confluence of fates he has promised, he takes us all the way back to 1914. This is where we meet the characters that are to have to the most influence later on in the book. We learn their origin stories. We discover their motivations and slowly we understand them. The effect of this, however, is that by the end of the novel, the thirst to learn more about how they fare, grows but the thirst is never quite quenched. The book is huge – both in terms of scope and the themes that are tackled in it, as well in terms of story. This could quite comfortably have been three books and not suffered any more for that.

Codename: Madeleine is such a thoroughly researched novel that there is sure to be something new between its pages for even the most well-versed war historian. The fictionalised parts blend seamlessly with the factual so that there is no sense of being taken out of the novel as there sometimes is with historical fiction. Expect a leisurely start, but expect it to turn into a thrilling dash to the finish. What stayed with me at the end was the leitmotif of Noor’s father’s question to his daughter – what is your Sankalpa? (destiny/heart’s desire) – throughout the book and how it returned to devastating effect at the end with her answer.

An extremely satisfying novel that above all serves to remind us of the sacrifice made by Noor. But more than that, it forces us to remember that when war is underway, we rely on the humanity and bravery of the innocent few to vanquish and transcend the evil of the guilty many.