I loved this! I’ve never read Kate Quinn before, although she has been recommended to me several times, so I’m pleased that my first experience of her work has been such a good one. The Rose Code wasn’t a perfect book, but the few flaws that I noted were quickly outweighed by the gripping plot, strong characters and interesting historical setting.
The story takes place in and around Bletchley Park, the English country house which became the home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers, and follows three of the young women who work there. Two of them, Osla Kendall and Mab Churt, meet on the train in 1940 as they travel to Bletchley Park, unsure as to what their new jobs will involve but determined to do their best to help the war effort. Osla, a beautiful, wealthy young socialite, is desperate to prove that she is more than just a ‘silly debutante’; the outspoken and fiercely independent Mab is a working class girl from the East End of London who, having escaped from a life of poverty, wants to make a better future for herself. At Bletchley Park, both will find the opportunities they need to change their lives – and so does a third young woman, Beth Finch. Beth has grown up under the thumb of her domineering mother and looks set to remain a spinster all her life, but when Osla and Mab notice her special gift for crosswords and puzzles, they encourage her to overcome her shyness and join them at Bletchley.
Although most of the novel is set during the war years, we occasionally jump forward in time to 1947. On the eve of the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, two of the three Bletchley Park women have received a summons for help from the third, who has been confined to an asylum. However, the friendship between the three of them broke down before the war ended and the two women who are free aren’t sure if they really want to help the one who is imprisoned. What happened to destroy their friendship? Was there really a traitor within Bletchley Park? And will the mysterious Rose Code ever be solved?
The Rose Code is a long novel, but was quicker to read than I’d expected because I became so engrossed in the stories of Osla, Mab and Beth. Their work at Bletchley Park is fascinating to read about, particularly Beth’s as a cryptanalyst, working with the legendary Dilly Knox. Although it all sounds very complicated – and I’m pleased the Allies didn’t have to rely on me to break the Enigma codes – Kate Quinn does a good job of explaining how the various machines were used and what the different decryption methods involved. She also explores the psychological impact of carrying out such highly confidential work; all of the codebreakers sign up to the Official Secrets Act and are banned from discussing their work with friends and family or even with people from different departments within Bletchley Park itself. This raises the interesting question of whether it’s ever acceptable to break your oath of secrecy – and if not, what sort of strain will that put on your relationships with other people?
Several real historical figures appear in The Rose Code. I have already mentioned Dilly Knox, but we also briefly meet Alan Turing, Winston Churchill…and Prince Philip, who is romantically involved with Osla before his marriage to Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen). This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as Kate Quinn apparently based the character of Osla Kendall on the real life Osla Benning, who really was a Canadian debutante who worked at Bletchley Park and was Prince Philip’s girlfriend – but I don’t personally feel comfortable reading fictional portrayals of people who are still alive and this whole storyline felt unnecessary to me. I couldn’t imagine the real Philip saying some of the things he says in the book either; in fact, although I did appreciate the author’s attempts to use the slang of the time, the language in general didn’t always feel quite right to me – and there are a few annoying references to England when it should be Britain.
Still, even the Philip storyline didn’t stop me from enjoying this book because the rest of it was so interesting and compelling. There was even one scene that made me cry and I think that’s always a sign that the author has done something right! I’m sure I will be reading more books by Kate Quinn.
Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley