Review: The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair

Title: The Codebreakers

Author: Alli Sinclair

Published: 3rd March 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Inspired by the women who secretly served the Australian Central Intelligence Bureau during World War II, The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair is a highly engaging historical fiction novel about war, friendship, secrets, love and loss.

When Elanora (Ellie) O’Sullivan is approached to take up a clandestine role with the Australian Women’s Army Service, she is reluctant to give up her position as a member of the ground crew for Qantas Empire Airways, whose planes transport supplies to New Guinea as WWII continues to rage across Europe and the Pacific. Accepting the post will mean she will have to leave the home of Mrs. Hanley, where she shares a room with fellow crew member Kat Arnold, and will have to keep her activities in her new job a secret from everyone. Yet she feels compelled to accept, and finds herself living and working with a group of women whose role is to decode intercepted enemy communications. Ellie enjoys the work and is proud to be making such an important contribution to the war effort, but the intense pressure and the need for secrecy takes its toll on her, and her colleagues.

Sinclair develops a fascinating story in The Codebreakers, set in Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane, beginning in 1943. Having read the wonderful biography of Mrs Mac, an extraordinary woman who was in large part responsible for women being able to join the auxiliary armed forces in WWII (Radio Girl by David Duffy) last year, and then falling down a rabbit hole or two, I was aware that women played a role as signal operators and codebreakers in Australia during the war, and I’m delighted that Sinclair honours their significant but largely un-acknowledged contribution.

Merging historical fact with fiction, Sinclair explores the challenges the Australian people faced on the home front while at war, fearing an invasion or bombing from enemy forces. Everyone was expected to contribute to the war effort and as men were sent away to fight, many women stepped up and into non-traditional roles. Sinclair’s main protagonist Ellie represents one of thousands of women who played a vital role during the period, often with little recognition, then and even now.

If I’m honest I did not particularly care much for Ellie, I often found her character grating, always anxious about something – be it her job, or her personal relationships – even if for good reason, her thoughts throughout the book were often repetitive. I understood, as Sinclair’s Author Note confirms, that to keep such an extraordinary secret, particularly from loved ones despite the high stakes, was very difficult, but it was largely the well-crafted, sweeping plot that carried this story for me.

There is intrigue when one of Ellie’s colleagues is suspected to be a traitor, and romance when Ellie meets a handsome airman who courts her with gentlemanly ardour. Friendships are formed and broken. There is grief when young men fail to return to their sweethearts, joy when the war finally ends. Of course the main strength of the novel is what it reveals of our own history – the ‘Garage Girls’ and the remarkable women like them, a glimpse of our clandestine war activities, the revelation of a secret base in the outback, and later, the changes war wrought on society which allowed Ellie and other women to imagine a different future for themselves, other than what had always been expected of them.

An absorbing, well researched novel told with heart, warmth, and respect for the legacy of all who defended our country, The Codebreakers is a wonderful story I’d recommend.

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Available from Harlequin Australia

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