You know that thing where you buy, say, a red Mazda and suddenly, it seems that every second car on the road is a red Mazda? For me, the same phenomena sometimes happens with books. I had just finished reading The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair, which tells the story of the women who worked in an Australian signals intelligence unit in WWII. The next book I picked up was The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a British historical fiction best-selling author. This new release novel is also about codebreaking women – this time at Bletchley Park, the better known facility in England that did so much to turn the war in the Allies’ favour.
I loved this book. I found it an ‘easy’ read in that it engaged me right from the start with characters that are believable and a compelling storyline, complete with a mystery that must be solved by them. The setting of both time and place – wartime Britain and the top-secret facility which employed a wide range of interesting people with astounding skills and commitment – grabbed my interest and added to my understanding of this important work and how what was done at Bletchley Park, and other units scattered throughout Allied territories, fitted together.
The main characters – charming wealthy debutante Osla, impoverished East End girl Mab, and shy but talented Beth – are all either based on real-life historical figures or an amalgam of people who really did work at Bletchley Park. These three young women – so different and from such dramatically diverse backgrounds – illustrate how Bletchley Park recruited all kinds of people, so long as they had the skills required.
The historical detail is terrific but always serves to progress the story. The novel also canvasses conditions of the time: casual sexual harassment and inequality experienced by women, for example; the intense concentration and high stakes of the work at Bletchley Park; the awful practices at mental health institutions then, just to name a few. There is tragedy, destruction, fear and distress and amongst it all, people had to continue with life:
I know there’s a war on, Osla wanted to shriek. I know, I know! But something else went on at the same time war did, and that was life. It kept going right up until the moment it stopped, and this was hers, limping along like a horse suddenly gone lame…The Rose Code p457
As in The Codebreakers, a strong theme in this novel is the secrecy that Bletchley Park demanded, and the sometimes awful toll it took, both during and after the war. Can you imagine having to lie to your family and closest friends about the work you did during the war? I cringe to think of young men, stopped in the street by people accusing them on being shirkers because they were not in uniform, and unable to say that their work is crucial to the war effort.
I enjoyed The Rose Code so much that I was rather sad when I’d finished it. I’ve since watched several documentaries about Bletchley Park and I might just re-watch the movie The Imitation Game very soon! And – one day – I’d love to visit Bletchley Park museum.
The Rose Code is published by HarperCollins Publishers in March 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.
People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.
I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.
What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.
Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.
Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.
The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.
Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.The Codebreakers p324
If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.
The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.