The Rose Code by Kate Quinn is the first book I’ve read by this author. I was drawn in by the WW2 setting and promise of mystery, but it’s much more than that. There are two timelines; 1947 as the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth approaches, and 1939 at the outbreak of war. At its centre are three young women who don’t quite fit into their worlds. War introduces something new to their lives. Opportunity. Advancement. Recognition. Friendship. Home. Mabs has grown up in Shoreditch but longs to escape. She follows her own plan of improvement – reading the classics, copying the accents of assistants in upper class shops – with the long-term aim of rescuing her younger sister Lucy from poverty. Osla is a Canadian society girl, rich, pretty, labelled as a dim deb who trains as a riveter to make Hurricanes. Both have mysterious interviews and are sent on a train journey to ‘Station X’. This turns out to be a large country mansion – Bletchley Park – where secret war work is undertaken. Both must sign the Official Secrets Act before they are admitted. At their lodgings, they meet Beth, downtrodden daughter of their strict religious landlady Mrs Finch.
Beth’s skill at crosswords is recognised and soon all three girls are working at ‘BP’. In their jobs – typing, translating, decoding – the three girls get to know each other and, despite the rules of secrecy, they learn how gossip inside ‘BP’ works. Soon they are promoted, learning top secret information before it is transmitted to government, before even Churchill. And with knowledge comes power, and danger.
We follow the three through romances – Osla with young naval officer, Prince Philip of Greece – and bombings. There is something to like and dislike about each woman making them realistic, rounded characters. Mab was my favourite, Osla slightly irritating, while Beth changes the most throughout the course of the book. The 1947 strand becomes a hunt for a traitor as the Cold War gets colder and a former WW2 ally becomes the enemy. The girls must revisit their wartime secrets to question the nature of truth and loyalty, to each other and to their country.
The Second World War is often thought of as a time of liberation for women doing the jobs of men and in some ways it was; but Quinn shows this was a transitory advantage – temporary, class driven, certain jobs only – and women were still ultimately dependant on a man in so many ways. As the women look back at their former lives we see how much, and how little, has changed for them.
Some of the coding puzzles went straight over my head but that didn’t really matter. The Bletchley setting is great, the gossip of the weekly scandal rag, the familiar names dropped – Alan Turing, Joan Clarke – the book club and 3am kidneys on toast. I’m not sure the 1947 royal wedding deadline adds much to the narrative, there’s enough threat without it. As I was getting towards the end of the book and was interrupted, I snatched up the book again at the next possible opportunity.
BUY THE BOOK
If you like this, try:-
‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson
‘Another You’ by Jane Cable
‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE ROSE CODE by @KateQuinnAuthor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5lQ via @SandraDanby