Mira, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, a subsidiary of Harper Collins, Australia, 2021
This latest novel by Alli Sinclair joins the slowly growing body of literary works about the role that women played in the two world wars. These stories have remained untold for decades and it is only relatively recently that popular fiction has turned its attention to them.
The women who worked in Brisbane at the rather drably named Central Bureau were responsible for codebreaking in the same way that the women of Bletchley Park were in Britain. Not only during the war but for decades after its end, their work was shrouded in secrecy and they were forbidden to talk about what they did.
They worked in tough conditions, not only in physical discomfort but also separated during the week from their homes and loved ones – this made the secret keeping easier no doubt. They were also subject to male prejudice despite the high calibre of the intelligence work they undertook. It is, however, considered that their contribution shortened the war by a considerable time.
In this story, country girl Ellie O’Sullivan, who has been working for QANTAS ensuring the airworthiness of their planes, is recruited to the Central Bureau and proves herself to be an able de-coder, even rapidly learning Japanese in the line of duty. Ellie is thrown in with a group of women who, for the most part, form strong bonds. It is the power of female friendship that dominates this strand of the narrative as we follow the women through from 1943 to the end of the war in the Pacific.
Issues of post-war trauma are explored along with grief, the temptations to reveal secrets to the enemy and the general privations of the wartime economy as they affected the normal citizen. There is also a lot of kindness in this story as well as a smattering of romances.
While this is a history recounting the patriotic work of a select group of women, it is also a snapshot of life in the wider Australian society of the time. Women struggled to be recognised in professional roles no matter how highly qualified they were.
Change came slowly in this regard even in war times when many of the men were away fighting overseas. It is still coming slowly perhaps to this day but reading Alli’s work is a potent reminder of how much was achieved by remarkable women of past generations like those of Central Bureau.
Thank you to Harper Collins for my review copy and to Alli for such an interesting, easy-flowing conversation.