Bletchley Park is all about the Enigma machine and Alan Turing who broke the German codes and won the war, pretty much single-handedly, right?
It’s quite alarming how a good story comes to dominate the historical narrative. On the periphery of Turin’s story is a cast of thousands, and The Rose Code, with barely a mention of Turin, brings these outsiders to the core and shines a light on their extraordinary achievements.
The central characters in this story are three women: one deb (who is the girlfriend of Philip before he marries the queen), one sensible middle-class girl and one working-class girl at whose house the other two are billeted. They are code breakers. Seems there were a lot of women at Bletchley and if your gran used to say she was doing “secretarial” work there during the war she was probably under a cone of silence. They were recruited for their languages or good grades or cryptic minds and they worked long long hours on very tedious mundane work waiting for a break through in a code.
Speaking of long long hours, the book would have been much more enjoyable with 200 pages lopped off. I’m not sure why I persevered. Perhaps I would have made a good code-breaker. It takes off slowly and there are long stretches where not much happens.
Osla is pretty and posh and struggles to be taken seriously. Mab is pretty and tough (and we learn why well into the story), Beth is frumpy and painfully shy, but unexpectedly brilliant and is slowly coaxed out of her shell. They’re a good combination of characters with different desires and backgrounds.
The book is set in two time frames and we jump back and forward. I’m not sure this adds anything to the tension. In the future Beth is held in a mental hospital, and the now warring Osla and Mab are called together to solve a puzzle. In the past the girls are recruited for Bletchley Park, work together, have various romances and relationships, and head towards the future. I enjoyed the peripheral characters: Francis Gray the war poet was interestingly drawn, as were colleagues Dilly Knox (a real character) and Harry Zerb (invented, I think?). Also–so shoot me–I thought the affair with a dashing Phil the Greek was pretty exciting. Can we not look at him with some sympathy now he’s dead?
The drama picks up in the second half of the story, so once you’re invested past the first few chapters, read on. And it is good to read a war story where the women are actively and intellectually engaged in the effort rather than being victims. There are some horrors visited on them in the Blitz but mostly the war comes to them in scraps of translated scripts of code.
In summary, The Rose Code is a good counter balance to the Turin story; read it if you’re in slow mode and don’t have anywhere else to be for a few weeks.