Breaking the code in cracking fashion
Robert Harris’ Enigma succeeds on all the counts I had for it – an absorbing, immersive, thriller; one which though a fiction had enough basis in reality for it to appear an authentic possibility; to be educative, informative and clear about the technology without either sending this reader to sleep, refusing to grapple with the nuts and bolts, or employing the implausible devices bad writers use to educate their readers. And, more than this, I wanted the combination of frantic need to turn pages with a wonderfully structured narrative, interesting characters and, above all admirable writing!
Harris delivers all – not to mention twists I didn’t see coming but, once they occurred I rather hit my forehead wondering how I could have NOT suspected and predicted them. Those are the very best twists – not ones which are just rather crude writerly devices, but twists which make complete sense AND are missed by the reader – particularly in a book which in the end is about a top secret mission, so every character in the book is rather in the dark on the whole picture, and those that aren’t in the dark are doing their level best to cover their own tracks! Twisty, turny puzzles and a mounting sense of urgency are the background of the real story and setting – Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Enigma code in World War Two – which Harris constructs his wonderful fiction around
It is 1943. Alan Turing is not, at this point, in Bletchley Park, but is in America (he assisted in the construction of the famous ‘bombes’ used to crack the codes, for Bell Labs in the States from November 42 to March 43) This ‘absence’ of the known, real figure gives Harris the novelist freedom to keep known and major history in place but have a different cast of characters, without the problems involved in creating untruthful fictions out of real lives.
His central character, Tom Jericho, is a young Cambridge mathematician, one of those recruited as one of the Bletchley code-breakers. Jericho is presently back in Cambridge, having suffered some kind of break-down through overwork during an earlier, intense time at Bletchley. He has been sent back to recuperate.
Jericho, one of Turing’s students, has been instrumental in a major decoding operation. It’s not only the stress of working against deadlines to crack the codes used by German U Boats as they targeted Allied shipping which caused Jericho’s breakdown, but a love affair gone wrong.
Inexplicably to those at Bletchley, the Germans suddenly and dramatically change their known patterns of coding. With America about to send fleets of ships, containing supplies to Britain, and U Boats patrolling the sea lanes, it is essential that the codes are re-broken, and Jericho is summoned back to Bletchley, where he half longs to be and half dreads to be, not least because of the pain of the ending of his love affair.
Harris absolutely winds up, tighter and ever tighter, a feverish atmosphere, – working against a dreadfully ticking clock as the likelihood of U Boats finding the American fleet increases, hour by hour. Britain in blackout, edible food increasingly rationed, and dreadful moral calls always lurking – if codes are cracked, how far and how quickly can the Allies save immediate lives in danger, against the fact that such actions will alert Germany to the fact codes have been cracked and lead to radical changes again. And what caused the sudden previous change anyway? Something is not quite right at Bletchley Park…..
This is a brilliant thriller, and Harris looks at wider considerations than just the urgency of code-cracking during the war. It also has much to reveal about class politics, gender politics and the sometimes uneasy relationship between Britain and America, linked to Britain’s class-conscious society. Many of the people who came to Bletchley or were recruited into the Secret Services were old-guard, boys-club, those who had come from the ‘best’ public school backgrounds, into the ‘best Universities, and were ‘people like us’ But the war also needed people ‘not like us’ who had the requisite skills in cryptanalysis, the kind of mathematical ability and conceptional thinking which this needed, who might have gone to the ‘best’ Universities on those merits. And there might be others, ‘not like us’ at all in fact, alien to the whole old boy network – women – who might also have the kinds of minds for the work.
Bletchley Park recruited many women, and certainly some of them must have been hugely frustrated by being utilised well below their intellectual abilities, confined to less demanding, more lowly (but necessary) clerical tasks, simply due to gender. Some of the women would have had sharper, more astute minds for the work than some of their male section heads. And equally undoubtedly the power differentials between men-in-charge and women in lowlier positions would also have been used and abused.
Harris creates two wonderful leading characters, who come into conflict and into a working accord with each other – Tom Jericho himself and the understandably resentful, bitter, highly intelligent Hester Wallace, the house-mate of his lost love, the impeccably upper-class Claire Romilly. It is quite refreshing to see a complex, layered relationship of trust, distrust, dislike, respect and understanding between a male and female, which has nothing to do with a sexual relationship between them, explored.
By all accounts the less than satisfying sounding film-of-the-book did an unnecessary sex-up. The film maker, or possibly eyes-on-the-bucksters of raising finances, took the decision to create a love-interest between Jericho and Hester, thus negating the more interesting dynamic which understands that not every male/female relationship needs sex as its glue.
A highly recommended, immersive, well-written and intellectually stimulating page-turner. It had me reading far too late into the night, and waking far too early before dawn to pick up again and read further
And, an edit – better late than never, I posted before finding the pingback links to Fiction Fan’s review of the book which made me determined to get and read it, and quickly, and also of the film of the book, which made me equally determined to AVOID viewing! Hopefully I have got my pings in before she notices the missing credits!