In the mid 1940s, Britain’s most brilliant minds are working around the clock to break the German codes and intercepted messages. Bletchley Park was the central hive of this important work and its worker bees consisted of men and women of varied backgrounds.
Lucy Ribchester sets her latest novel, The Amber Shadows, in the middle of this busy, secretive, and strange place. Employees are kept in the dark about what happens in other huts. IDs have to be shown at multiple checkpoints going in and out of Bletchley. Employees are billeted with begrudging locals in dusty, spare rooms.
The protagonist, Honey Deschamps, begins receiving mysterious parcels with no return address but stamps of Soviet origin. The packages contain small pieces of amber. Honey is confused by the odd items and keeps it to herself, hoping she can puzzle out what is going on. Her only connection to Russia is a long-lost father who used to work in antiquities.
Then she has a brother, a dancer, obsessed with Russian ballet. Perhaps he is sending a message to her? And what of the man who delivered the first one who her? No one seems to know him. The plot of the subterfuge, and Honey’s place in it, feels a bit forced. Her role in Bletchley is a low one and unlikely to garner any real advantage for a “bad guy.”
The novel’s strength lies in the evocation of time and place.
One of the weirdest facts of the blackout was that it didn’t apply to sound. From anywhere and nowhere, the whine of the trumpets came reaching halfway across the airfield. The mess hall was invisible but a couple of vehicles were parked one on each side of the door, their dipped lights shining along a concrete step. Flashes came and went as the door opened and slammed. On the field, reaching all the way back from where they had been dropped off, small torch beams scattered the ground in dainty lines. Where they shone they picked up wisps of faintly falling snow; flickering scratches on the night’s celluloid surface. ~Pg. 133
These are the moments Ribchester’s writing shines. The reader feels like a visitor to an unfamiliar setting. Rationing, dark nights, paranoia and exhaustion are readily felt.
My thanks to Iris at Pegasus Books for the review copy.
By Lucy Ribchester
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Pegasus Books (August 8, 2017)