The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn – A female sniper in the 1940s changes lives and more in this brilliant historical novel

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

This is a historical novel based on a real character, which is not only an account of the extraordinary life of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, but also a genuinely tense thriller. Kate Quinn is the successful author of “The Rose Code” which looked at women at Bletchley Park which also used some real characters including Prince Philip, and includes a large element of historical suspense. This book is also set during the Second World War, largely as the Red Army tried to prevent the Invasion of the USSR by Hitler’s forces, as Mila fights as a successful sniper. Another element is the visit by a group of students, which includes Mila, to the US in order to ask for American support in defending Eastern Europe. While this was a real event, the novel imports the idea of a fictional marksman who has a mysterious assignment to kill, and  to attribute the blame to an innocent party. 

This is a stylish and powerful novel which depicts brilliantly the harsh realities of military action, where the targets are of necessity seen close up and the penalties for failure can be fatal. It has a brutal atmosphere in which a woman lives among male soldiers. Mila emerges as a driven woman, an able and dedicated student, a loving mother and a ferocious and controlled sniper. Her relationships with her estranged husband and those men who become of vital importance to her are beautifully described throughout the novel. Her mantra becomes “Don’t Miss”, and this becomes the theme not only for her main purpose as a deadly sniper, but also her life. A relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt seems ill fated, but may well take both women into unsuspected places. There is so much research behind this novel, but it is never allowed to interrupt or slow the narrative. It becomes the story of a realistic and driven woman, a vivid and vital character, and she is central to this multi-layered story. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this amazing book.

The Prologue to this book is set in Washington August 1942, as a Russian delegation arrives in the United States. A mysterious marksman echoes the widespread scepticism that surrounds the idea of a female sniper, a seemingly young woman who is alleged to have a tally of over three hundred kills on the Russian Front. The action then reverts to 1937, and an incident in the life of Mila as she encounters her estranged husband Alexi. Enraged by his latest non attendance at an appointment to finalise their divorce, Mila fails to impress at target shooting in front of him and crucially their small son Slavka. As a result she decides to train for an advanced marksmanship award, in order to show Slavka that she can be a strong parent. As the focus of the story moves on to June 1941 and the notification of an invasion, Mila decides that she will not continue her studies into obscure historical figures but will instead enlist as a sniper. As the only army which put women on the front line in this way, Mila was a figure of curiosity not only in her native country but in many countries. The hardship of life and the conditions for all soldiers but especially a young woman forms the background for Mila’s intense work as a sniper, preparing sight lines, finding a hiding place, calculating the weather and the dozens of other preparations that she and her partner must make. She is put in charge of training recruits, but it is the making of relationships in the face of daily danger that defines this part of the book. There is a build up of tension so many times, as well as the overall build up to the American threat. 

This is an excellent book in so many ways; there is romance, a portrait of a strong woman, the harsh realities of war as well as the long term build up to a suspense filled climax. I recommend this story to anyone who enjoys a strong narrative with a female protagonist who describes her life, loves and loss in a compelling way.   

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.