The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – three young women discover secrets of war and beyond

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Three women doing a vital job, the absolute need for secrecy, and the losses of a war are all themes of this powerful novel. When a debutante, an ambitious Londoner and an abused young woman share a billet near the secret Bletchley Park in 1940, they have little or no idea of the outcomes of the secrets they must keep, or the risks they must take. This is a sophisticated novel that moves between the beginning of the work of Bletchley Park in cracking the codes which affected the British War effort so significantly, and the build up to a royal wedding in 1947 that proves to be a landmark in postwar life. Quinn has combined research into the minutiae of the work carried out by the women in the secret setting and life during the Second World War with a powerful insight into the life of women during the mid twentieth century. Her combination of characters in wealthy Osla, intense Mab and obsessive Beth is ambitious one that goes beyond a simple description of women working together; each has secrets and priorities that balance on the edge of tragedy. When one of the women finds herself in appalling circumstances it leads to difficult decisions for many people which has effects beyond the expected. As betrayal and danger emerge in a world beyond Bletchley, all the skills that the women have gained must be called on as they fight to crack one last code. This is a big book which reveals a lot of research, but Quinn has combined it into a compelling narrative of passion and war. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.  

The novel swings between two time periods; one beginning in the Prologue in 1947, and another begins with the narrative in 1939. The first establishes that Osla Kendall, wealthy Canadian socialite and writer has just received an encrypted message as she prepares to attend the Royal Wedding of a Prince to a Princess. Eight years earlier Mab Churt is reading a book in order to improve herself, desperate as she is to rise higher than her working class background, cultivating the accent and attitudes that she hopes will eventually mean a better job and a wealthy husband. When the invitation to comes to travel to Bletchley Park she meets Osla, and both are bewildered as to how their work will truly make a difference. When they meet their landlady’s daughter they convince her to join the mysterious work at the Park, and Beth discovers her true vocation, the all encompassing world of deciphering code. As time goes on Osla discovers that even romance can be dangerous in a war, Mab meets a nearly silent man who discovers secrets, and Beth is so involved in the nearly mystical obsession with letters that she has entered a new way of life. As tragedies and secrets begin to overlap, time becomes a huge factor in the lives of young woman for whom nothing will ever be the same.

This is the sort of book that offers a really memorable reading experience. As befits a book of secrets and codes, there is so much to discover in its twists and turns, but most of all there is so much to learn about women and some men sworn to secrecy in matters of life and death. I found it to be a profound and somewhat unsettling book, in a good way, that makes some sense of the work actually done in a place which has only relatively recently been open to the public. The portraits of the three women are fascinating in their variety, and I recommend this big book as giving the space and time to learn about their special stories.