Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The Codebreakers is a novel that seems to offer something for everyone. A female lead who is strong in character, thus satisfying the feminists; gender inequality, thus angering the feminists; a well-told story that involves its readers; and the intrigue of working in government circles where everything is very hush hush, and transgressions punished with imprisonment.
We meet the lead character, Ellie O’Sullivan, when she is in the process of carrying out her engineering work on aircraft for Qantas Empire Airways. She is visited by a stranger in a suit who offers her an alternative occupation but will give her no details until she agrees to accept. Ellie will not accept a job under those conditions. She digs her heels in until a friend, who is also in the new organisation, whispers the words ‘signals intelligence’. Ellie accepts the job.
Accompanying this storyline is a developing love story between Louis Dutton and Ellie, who Dutton calls ‘bug’. They insist they are only old friends from childhood. Their story permeates the book. Ellie finds it difficult to work in secrecy and keep all secrets from her old friend, to whom at times she has to lie.
The story moves to a description of Ellie’s workplace and the operational procedures of the very secret Central Bureau. She learns technical information like running a Type X machine, but she also learns that women are expected to work in a garage while the men work in a house and that the women must sleep overnight in barracks while the men live in hotels or apartments. Never-the-less Ellie decrypts important messages that lay concealed by the Japanese cryptographers.
These paragraphs contain the genesis of the story. Alli Sinclair develops each thread, her efforts resulting in a book that will satisfy all of those readers who look for something different in a book. The romance between Louis and Ellie, naturally enough, does not go smoothly, the work Ellie does in the Central Bureau increasingly intrigues, especially when a spy is discovered. The issue of gender inequality is given prominent treatment.
Alli Sinclair enjoys immersing herself in exotic destinations, cultures and languages and her books explore history, love and grief and human relationships of many kinds. All of these pleasures find prominence in this storyline and bring a breath of fresh air as well as authenticity into a story that in different forms has been told before. The originality lies not in the events that make up the tale but in the depiction of each character such that one cannot be confused with another.
The Author Note brings to our consciousness that Central Bureau and the Garage Girls existed. The author reveals their personal experiences of living with secrets and how this affected their lives. Sinclair brings out that fine wedge that exists, and cannot bear be acknowledged, between a family member with a secret and those without. It is that light touch to Sinclair’s writing that makes it so graceful and such a pleasure to read.
By Alli Sinclair
Mira (Harlequin) (HarperCollins)
$29.95; 496 pp