HarperCollins | 2021 (18 March) | 656p | Review copy | Buy the book
When war is declared in September 1939, glamorous debutante Osla Kendall can’t get back to England from Montreal fast enough to help with the war effort. After a few exhausting weeks building Hurricanes, Osla is headhunted for her language skills and finds herself in Bletchley Park alongside Mab Churt, a working class girl who can type better than anyone. The two of them lodge with Mrs Finch, a ghastly woman whose daughter, the quiet and withdrawn Beth, has an extraordinary gift for solving puzzles. The three of them are soon at home in Bletchley Park, a place where genius and madness co-exist and whose inhabitants will go to astonishing lengths to break life-saving codes. But there is still time for Osla to dance the night away with her beau, Prince Philip of Greece, when he’s home on leave from the navy.
After the war, while she waits for her prince to marry another woman, Osla receives a message from her past. The three friends are no longer close, on the contrary, and one of them is in an asylum. The three must work together once more to fight another threat. The clues to it can be found in their time together at Bletchley Park, a time of secrets, friendships and war.
I knew that I wanted to read The Rose Code the moment I heard about it. I really enjoyed Lady of the Eternal City (which couldn’t be more different!) and so I knew that the story of the women who worked at Bletchley Park, alongside their more famous male counterparts, would be in safe hands. I absolutely loved it!
Our three heroines are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, with Osla hailing from the very heights of society, and yet all three have to face the very real challenges of leading independent, working lives at a time when society viewed such women with suspicion. War changes society and it undoubtedly gave women such as these a new lease of freedom. But it’s at such a cost, as can be seen by our tantalising glimpses of the secretive work going on in these mysterious huts to prevent U-boat attacks and quicken the end to war. But it’s outside those huts that the novel really comes alive as the three women get to know one another and embark on their own adventures – love affairs, marriage, fighting back, friendships with such fascinating and charismatic men. We know from the premise and the sections of the novel that are set a few years later in the days leading up to the marriage of Prince Philip and the Princess Elizabeth that there is darkness and treachery in their future and the reader never loses their desire to find out exactly what happens.
The atmosphere of puzzles and secrecy mixes here with a mood of grabbing what fun one can in a world where everything could be ended by a bomb, or where a loved one can be lost on a ship at sea, a victim of the U-boats that the de-coders are trying to stop. Osla in particular is full of life and I loved spending time with her, especially when she’s with the gallant Prince Philip. We know, of course, that this is a doomed love but it adds such a fun dash of romance to the novel, not to mention a delicious morsel of royal intrigue. The scenes set after the war in the Yorkshire asylum are distressing and disturbing and means that for much of the novel we wonder what on earth could have gone so wrong with these friends.
Kate Quinn writes so well and is wonderful at creating women who feel so real and genuine, even if they are highly unusual. The prose is compelling, the dialogue witty, and the story is fabulous. Bletchley Park isn’t an uncommon setting for a novel these days but it’s certainly viewed from a fresh perspective here – I loved the account of Churchill’s visit! The Rose Code is not a short book but it is a pleasure to read from start to finish.
Lady of the Eternal City