Enigma – or the train enthusiast’s nightmare

EnigmaWhen  I first met my husband, he did romantic things like take me to the cinema. (Now I have to depend on the offspring, one of whom has worked out that he often gets in free as a result.) He took me to see “Tess”, the film version of Hardy’s novel. As the hushed cinema watched the train go off into the distance, taking with it all Tess’ romantic hopes, with me tearing a damp tissue of emotion, husband pipes up (loudly) “That’s all wrong! A train of that period would never have had a lamp like that on the back, not then!” Cue romantic feeling gone, and much hushing going on around us.

But reader, I married him. And I was reminded of that cinema visit when he borrowed my latest book club book, Enigma,by Robert Harris. This otherwise blameless account of code breaking in Bletchley Park during World War Two offended the man because (allegedly, can’t be bothered to look it up myself) Harris mucked up which way the trains depart from Cambridge, or the routes they take, or something. For the rest of us, this is a complex book, but which does work as a human interest story.

Tom Jericho, the driven hero, is first seen in Cambridge suffering a breakdown brought on by the desperate fight to crack codes on German shipping before many more people are killed. This is based on the true problems of discovering the messages sent by German military using brilliant mathematical concepts, machinery evolved by the brilliant Turing, and the sheer dogged hard work of recording, filing and collating messages carried out by mainly women. It is one of these largely underrated women, Hester, who helps Jericho to discover what happened to his girlfriend, Claire.

This is a book which does demand some concentration, and there are dark sections concerning the outcome of any failure to protect the convoys of shipping targeted by U boats. The decoding of the messages is complicated, but the reader does not have to work hard at this, but rather at working out the significance is of the presence or absence of the written slips of paper. There are poignant pictures of people under pressure as well as pursuit across the mysterious wartime countryside. I enjoyed the descriptions of the work of Bletchley as well as Jericho’s determination to find Claire.  The character of Hester is particularity well written, as she discovers that less able men are given more challenging tasks while she is left to copy and record. She is determined to discover what happened to Claire, and risks everything resourcefully to work out the answers. The ending of the novel is exciting and eventually touching.

This is not just a book for geek codebreakers, or military obsessives. It depicts real seeming people under pressure, and is probably better than the film version which, from what I remember, is very worth watching anyway. Not being put off by slight inconsistencies in train routes like my beloved, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a non gory, mainly non violent thriller in a historical context.