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Can You Keep a Secret? - an Editorial Review of "Secret Lives"

Book Blurb:

February 1942

Alice Stallard, encouraged by her two friends, submits her entry to the Daily Telegraph prize crossword – a crossword she solves in record time. She thinks nothing more about it until called into the study of her Cambridge University professor where she’s invited to an interview at the mysterious Bletchley Park near Bedford.

Once at Bletchley Park, Alice is confronted with the Official Secrets Act and months of training for a job no one will talk about. After being moved from one training centre to another, her final posting is to Station 53a of the Special Operations Executive – Winston Churchill’s ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’.

But what of when the War is over? Will Alice keep her promise of silence?

February 1998

A-levels loom on the horizon for 18-year old Rosie Mason. She had expected her favourite subject to be History but instead is finding it dull and lifeless. Perhaps the drama and romance she was hoping for can be found elsewhere – in her grandmother’s memories. But Gran is reluctant to share any war stories, changing the subject at every one of Rosie’s questions.

Determined to conquer Gran’s reticence, Rosie decides to spend her long post-exam holiday with her grandparents. After days of trying, Gran agrees to show Rosie a few photos -- and the first edition copy of C S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

Only when Rosie stumbles on a handwritten note tucked between the pages of Screwtape does the silence of decades threaten to unravel.

Author Bio:

I am a British ex-pat who has lived in South Africa for nearly as long as in England. I have exchanged squirrels in the garden for monkeys; the caw of crows with the terrified-seeming cry of the hadeda ibis. I swelt under a hot summer sun, rather than shiver in the freezing rain.

And it is here, under a wide-open sky, that I have begun to write, in response to a call from Jesus to ‘write what I see in a book’.

And so the journey has begun, seeing and writing. I trust the eyes of your heart will be opened to see with me as you read.

Anna Jensen xx

Editorial Review:

I must impress upon you the need for absolute discretion about your position here. Is that understood? No one must know that you work here, at the Park, nor must they know what you do here.” He held up a hand before Alice could interrupt him. “You will inform your friends and family that you are working with a group of academics near Oxford. Nothing more. Your postal address will be issued to you in due course. Please do not use any other address than the one provided.”

Secret Lives is another thrilling example of a dual timeline story set during World War II and the touching connection between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Rosie Mason is an eighteen-year-old student struggling to get through her history lessons. After finding the mindless recitations from her teacher and endless page-turning through history books too much for her to stomach, she turns to her grandmother with the intent of bringing out some actual stories of her time during the war. She convinces her mother to let her spend her holiday with her grandparents, yet at every turn, Gran is resistant to Rosie's incessant questions about the war. Yet a few secrets spill once her grandmother shares some pictures in a box, and a copy of C. S. Lewis's book “The Screwtape Letters”, which Rosie devours in record time... and discovers a mysterious piece of paper tucked inside the pages.

I wasn't in London myself, not during the Blitz. I visited it afterwards though. It was horrible. Smelled of soot and smoke everywhere you went; I suppose the fires got into the bricks or something. So sad, so many homes destroyed. You know, a home isn't just a house – it's a family; it's photographs and heirlooms and treasured sentimental bits and pieces. Stuff that means nothing to some German bomber but everything to the ones who lose it.”

Rosie's persistence causes her grandmother, Alice's secrets to bubble to the surface, and as the chapters vacillate back and forth between the past and the present, the reader is taken back in time to Alice's own time as a student and her initial contact with the war effort. In 1942, Alice submits an entry to the Daily Telegraph, a crossword puzzle that she solves in record time. Before long, she is contacted by her University professor that an opportunity has arisen for her to use her skills to help in the war effort. After she is transferred from one place to another, with no idea really about what kind of job this entails, and after making friends and having to leave them again and again, she arrives at her final posting within the Special Operations Executive – the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – and is required to take the “Official Secrets Act” oath. Her family thinks she is working as a nurse and transport person with the FANY division, yet her job is far more dangerous. She uses her skills at problem-solving as a decoder, working alongside a network of decoders engaged in some of the most important work during the war. Yet, she can tell no one... and Alice continues the secret long after the war is over.

Gran, you were in the War weren't you?” Rosie longed to know more, to hear something from real life. “I bet you could teach me more than Mrs Norris ever could. You must have done stuff, been places, seen people, and you're the best at telling stories.”

That is, until her granddaughter starts asking questions... and then a book is released in 1998 by the director of the division which reveals everything Alice had kept hidden for so many years. Rosie's attachment to her grandmother grows even deeper, and a profound respect and admiration for all that she sacrificed during the war.

This glimpse into the past, reminiscent of “The Imitation Game” which revealed the secret coding stations across Britain and the lives of many of the women working alongside Alan Turing whose work involved deciphering messages from the enemy as well as assisting those on the front lines in troop movements, secret rendezvous's, and more, does more than enlighten the reader about this history. This book really reveals the ingrained emotions and struggles that many faced during that time. Alice's character gave up much to help out in the war effort, and her loyalty to the cause, and that of keeping secrets meant the saving of lives. Ms Jensen does a great job in fleshing out both Alice's character, as well as Rosie's and bringing them together in such a touching way. Anyone who is a grandmother with a special relationship with their granddaughter will appreciate the care the author takes in this attachment. Not only that, but the depth of historical accuracy and research is well-founded in this narrative, as well as the nice touches of the author's strong faith. A well-done and easy read for anyone interested in this aspect of WWII.

It wasn't as glamourous as the war fought by some. Nor as talked about as, say, Mavis and her land girls or Vera in the factory. But it was war, nonetheless. And there was a cost. Alice watched a swift arc through the air, its distinctive wing shape silhouetted against the blue of a perfect spring day. So many seasons come and gone – the stifling heat of summer, the bitter cold of winter, in an endless cycle of years all blurred into one. So few visits home. So many broken friendships, unable to carry the burden of stilted conversations and censored letters. Dreams of studying, or travel, even of courtship and marriage, lay dusty and unrealised in a distant corner of the heart. Was it worth it? Was it really a gift she gave? Or was it a treasure, stolen?


Secret Lives” by Anna Jensen receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company

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