It is fair to say that the top-secret work done at Bletchley Park during World War II shortened the war by as much as two years and may have saved millions of lives. The extent of the achievements of the code breaking that was done there was mostly unknown until the mid-1970s. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn takes us beyond the guarded gates and brings this amazing wartime work out into the open.
The Rose Code begins in 1940 as England prepares for war. Osla, a beautiful socialite who wants to prove there is more to her than a glamorous exterior and Mab, a young woman who has pulled herself up from abject poverty, meet on the train to Bletchley Park on their first day of work. Despite their differences, they become close friends and roommates. Both start working menial tasks, but Osla’s perfect German has her promoted to translating decoded messages. Mab becomes an expert at working the automatic decoding machines which is both physically demanding and intricate work. The friends soon recruit their landlady’s daughter Beth, who is able to understand and translate intricate puzzles. All three flourish in their new jobs.
Even as the women succeed in their work, their personal lives are complicated by the war and the secrets they must keep. Osla is dating Prince Philip (yes, that Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh) who is serving in the Mediterranean; she knows of the important naval battle his ship will be involved in before he does. (Quinn based Osla on Margaret Osla Henniker-Major who did indeed date Prince Philip during World War II and worked at Bletchley Park). Mab is searching for a “suitable” husband, but falls in love instead and Beth must overcome her crippling shyness and stand up to her mother, all against the backdrop of the war.
The novel jumps between the war years and 1947 when Beth has been falsely accused of a terrible crime and is in grave danger. Her friends from Bletchley Park look past their differences and unite again to work together to try and solve one more secret. As time runs out and the Bletchley Park colleagues encounter multiple obstacles, will they be able to right a terrible wrong?
I’m a big fan of Kate Quinn; her earlier novels The Alice Network and The Huntress are a couple of my all-time favorite books. She ties major events to lesser known historical figures and brings them to life, adding great depth to the repercussions of war and conflict, of the lasting legacies and past bravery. The Rose Code is no different, with fascinating details of the vital work that went on at Bletchley Park, the women (who mostly went unacknowledged) that made so much of the code breaking possible and the great tension of the last few chapters when a new danger threatens, made for another can’t-put-down novel.