The Rose Code – A Masterpiece from Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is one of my favourite contemporary authors and I was certain I will love The Rose Code. But this book is something else! The Alice Network was great, The Huntress was epic, but in her third book to be set in the twentieth century, Kate Quinn has taken things to a whole new level and a much larger scale. It reminded me why I love historical fiction so much and what that genre is actually supposed to be. It uncovers a compelling bit of history through the incredibly potent emotional lens of the characters’ journeys.

The story is a sweeping tribute to the work of Bletchley Park codebreakers who might have very well made winning the war possible. Reading the author’s note in the back I was impressed to learn how much of the fictional characters is based on real people. One can only marvel at Quinn’s ability to intertwine reality with breathtaking fiction.

A warning – this is a slow narrative. Although their work was paramount to the war effort, the Bletchley Park recruits were not in imminent danger, their fight was a more personal one – to keep the secret, to lie to loved ones, to uphold an oath that may mean the death of people you know, to carry the burden of knowledge without the power to act on it. The dilemma between doing what you think is right and doing what you have sworn to do is at the core of the story’s conflict.
Even though the characters are as vivid and exciting as they get, they are not easy to like. Of the trio, Osla is the one I instantly started to root for, but you very quickly learn that this is not that type of book. Osla, Mab, Beth – they are not there for the reader to take sides or really relate to. They are just like flesh and bone survivors, whom you try to understand and admire, and take as they are. Their emotions, struggles, dreams and disappointments throughout the story feel raw and the way they react and cope is relentless to a point you want to shake them but that’s just who they are.

Much of the appeal of the characters as such, is in the way their struggles are still valid for women today – from Osla’s desire to be taken seriously, to Mab’s ferocious self-perfecting to fit an ideal in order to get a husband and thus – respectability, to Beth’s marginalization at the beginning, just because she is an introvert and her mind works in a different way.
Still, The Rose Code manages to be a character-driven journey, that is not about any one particular character, but about all the anonymous incredible people in Bletchley Park during WWII.
Oh, and by the way – there is a cameo fro a certain wartime journalist in here!

In the massive pool of wartime novels, Kate Quinn’s are the best – she interweaves character backgrounds, setting, and backstory deftly, with no annoying introspective and retrospective info dumps, which cannot be said about the majority of books on the topic. She does not depend on the emotional charge of the period to carry out her story and give life to characters, but through that story and characters brings history to colour and life.

I have said before that when I read a Kate Quinn novel, I feel like I have a best friend with me to get back to whenever I can and that makes me happy. This time I do not – “The Rose Code” is in a way too grand, too humbling to be a friend – maybe a very respected and well-liked mentor.

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