Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code is a masterwork of historical fiction. It’s a long book at 656 pages that reads quickly as the tension builds. Published by William Morrow in March 2021, this gripping story brings Bletchley Park, the famed hub of the British effort to break the German Enigma code during WWII, and the unique personalities who worked there to life. Quinn’s fascination with history and her deft storytelling add new twists to events past as she mixes historical figures together with her vibrant fictional characters, although her fictional characters are themselves composites of real people. Her history is not names and dates but is instead about how historical events changed and complicated people’s lives.
Three women meet through Bletchley Park where they each play a part in the monumental task at hand. They come from very different backgrounds from one another and from their fellow codebreakers. Osla Kendall is a debutant originally from Canada who had been helping the war effort bending metal building Hurricanes while dating a dashing prince. Mab Churt is a self-made London shop girl with a long held secret. Beth Finch is a shy young woman in her mid-20s with no confidence in her own abilities having been beaten down by her overbearing mother.
Osla and Mab are summoned to Bletchley Park. They meet on the train on their way to report and encounter one of the more interesting characters upon their arrival. He introduces them to the colloquial name for the place – GC & CS – which he explains stands for “Golf, Cheese, and Chess Society.” They later find out that GC & CS actually stands for “Government Code & Cypher School” which makes them wonder if they are being trained to be spies.
After reporting in and being assigned to different sections of the codebreaking effort, the two women are billeted close by at the Finch house which is a short walk from Bletchley Park. While there, they start to forge a friendship with Beth and take note of her wicked-sharp crossword puzzle skills. Much to Mrs. Finch’s chagrin, Osla manages to get Beth into Bletchley Park, and unbeknownst to either Osla or Mab at the time, Beth, assigned to “Dilly’s Fillies,” becomes one of Bletchley’s top cryptanalysts. Dilly Knox, it’s later revealed, prefers to hire brainy women because they take the job more seriously without their egos getting in the way. None of them can tell the others what their specific roles are at Bletchley which infuriates Mrs. Finch.
As the story develops, the three become quite close sharing the details of their private lives and loves as well as stories of some of the mishaps and odd personalities at work while always being careful to steer clear of divulging any work secrets. When each started at Bletchley Park, they signed a draconian oath that laid out severe or even life threatening penalties for breaking secrecy. Along the way, they start a Bletchley book club, affectionately known as the Mad Hatters after reading Louis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Their meetings bring together disparate personalities from their different sections of Bletchley Park for some much needed recreation. Eventually the secrecy sparks a traumatic incident that ends in a massive falling out before the war ends, but the story doesn’t end there.
The novel flips between two timelines, one through the course of WWII, and the other a few years after the war ends surrounding a royal wedding. Quinn’s attention to detail brings forward fascinating aspects of the different sections at Bletchley Park showing how the various groups’ work fits together even though none of the workers knows the full story by design. Quinn reveals the machinery used and critical skills required of the elite workforce at Bletchley. They all know they are involved in work that not everyone is capable of doing, and in their own ways take pride in their contributions to the war effort. Some of the habits they pick up through their efforts stay with them long after the war ends which comes in handy when a new puzzle presents itself and threatens one of their own.
Quinn is careful to maintain accuracy surrounding historical locations as well as the tone and urgency of the events shaping the war torn world of the early 1940s. She shows how the war wears everyone down. Despite being relatively safe in the confines of their secluded little hamlet, those at Bletchley Park fear for their friends and families who are not so fortunately located. They also suffer a bit of survivor’s guilt at times from the knowledge that although their efforts are what give the fighting forces the information they need, the warfighters are putting their lives on the line daily to carry out their missions while the codebreakers sit in their safe hamlet away from the physical dangers of the war.
What is later discovered is that spies are everywhere, and the secrecy oaths while well-intentioned are not full proof in combating all disclosure. The heart-pounding adventure continues long after the Armistice, and their codebreaking skills come in handy well after they leave Bletchley Park. Along the way, despite their wartime grudges, Osla, Mab, and Beth discover that some bonds turn out to be thicker than blood and stronger than even the worst falling out, and families can be found in many unexpected forms.