Once more unto the breach or seal up our walls with the English dead, sounds heroic but Shakespeare never fought a single battle. War’s not a pretty poem or play, it’s a multi-part tragedy.
Alan Turing is a fascinating figure, brilliant and tragic, who lived through and ultimately fell victim to a dangerous time and incomprehensible cruelty. But though he is a central character in Len’s novella House of Secrets, the central flame that duller, more ordinary characters are drawn to, he is not really what this novel is about. World War II has just started and our narrator Robin Sommers has volunteered and, thanks to family connections at the War Office, has been assigned a post as a German teacher and translator at Bletchley Park. There, ensconced with cryptanalysts, linguists, mathematicians, code-breakers and spies, he meets Turing.
The Park is the headquarters for the CCS: The Government Cypher and Code School. The Germans have a military cypher called Enigma, and the GCCS is an assembly of diverse talents to work on it and other encryption protocols. Dilly Knox, a senior cryptanalyst and World War One veteran, doubles as a scholar in ancient languages. Others are chess champions, crossword experts – I even met an anthropologist the other day. As for soldiers, there were few. Before I arrived, I’d hoped for a camp filled with trim, uniformed men with mustaches. The ones I’ve seen so far are a less impressive lot of striplings. I was disappointed, true, yet I felt relieved. Most likely, it is better for me this way. Safer.
Told via entries in Sommers’ diary, it is about his “adventure” at the Park and his fledgling relationship with Turing. Drawing a parallel between the culture of secrecy and fear that surrounds the Park, with threat of arrest for espionage at the end of every off hand comment, Len is able to draw out the risks inherent in Sommers’ relationships without directly addressing them. Gradually the tone of his diary changes from one of adventure to one of oppression as the war drags on. He questions the work he does, he questions whether being a German is enough of a crime to warrant a man’s execution. Whether someone who is German is so different from him. He ponders difference, and humanity, even as around him the roses are dug up so the Park can be expanded and life becomes ever more dangerous.
Last week, we found a radio operator in Munich who habitually pairs his initial with his girlfriend’s to create his encoding key. It’s just like how in Dresden, there’s a Luftwaffe officer who ends all his messages to Berlin asking his friend to check on his newborn’s health. By exploiting these endearments, we’ve figured out their keys. They say the U-boats like to attack at night so our sailors can watch their brethren ships light up the black waters, lighthouses illuminating their doom ahead. We deny each other’s humanity in a bitter exchange. Everything we do is contemptible – that’s the damnation of war.
But for Sommers, and Turing, it isn’t just war. Their humanity is denied every day, forcing them to keep their own secrets, to live their lives in code. Sommers has a distinct voice in his diary entries, impressively so, but the “what ho, old boy” Oxfordisms won’t appeal to everyone. I myself have to confess to loathing exclamation marks in a novel. Diary entries these may be but we’re not a twelve year old girl, are we? Also, I wonder if Turing is too big a character, too much of a perennial fascination, to do him justice in this condensed format? But Len set out to tell a story about secrets, not about Turing. He’s made it work and what’s more he’s made it an enjoyable, relatable read you can get through in an afternoon. I’m interested in reading more of Len’s work.
A small aside, how is it that I have, by sheer coincidence, read two gay World War II stories in the space of a month?
House of Secrets: A Bletchley Park Novella, W. Len: Three stars.
Read it for: a brief historical interlude, a dangerous liaison.
I received a free Kindle version from the author for review.