Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Can four girls protect a whole country?
It's 1941 and the country has been turned upside down. For the aristocratic Walsingham family this means being pushed unceremoniously upstairs while their grand home is taken over by the Army. But for newcomers Ava and Maudie this is a chance to get something more from life. They are at Walsingham Hall to become code girls and break German encryptions.
So being sent downstairs to work in the kitchens isn't exactly what they had in mind. But they do their duty, make new friends and soon even romance looks to be on the horizon. Though life is tough, it has never been more exciting.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Lord Walsingham is hiding something. And Maudie and the girls realize that the safety of their country might actually be in their hands after all . . .
The Code Girls is the second book from author Daisy Styles following on from her thoroughly enjoyable début The Bomb Girls. Over the past year I have become an even firmer fan of wartime sagas, be they set in World War One or World War Two, and it's great to discover a new author who brings a different slant to a topic which has been covered in minute detail many times before. Similar to the first book The Code Girls follows a group of women during World War Two when conscription for women became obligatory as most men were away fighting at the front and suitable women were needed to step into the roles left vacant by the brave men who had left the country.
Like Daisy's début I felt this book did take its time in getting going and I found the first half very repetitive with the same descriptions of cooking various dinners in Walsingham Hall. Interspersed throughout this were brief mentions of romance or developments in the girls personal lives but I wanted more of this. I suppose on reflection this does all add to the themes of the book and I must remember that life wasn't at all a barrel of laughs for the women forced to step up to the plate even though they may have shone in their various roles. Life at the time was repetitive and a grind with no end to the war in sight and the author probably wanted to reflect this and make the story as realistic as possible. It's not until the second half of the book that the pace really picked up and new characters were introduced and twists and turns aplenty kept coming. I was hooked throughout the latter half and was continuously guessing as to what the outcome would be. I know she has only written two books but I feel as if this is the style Daisy is going for. The first half of the book is pure introduction and will include every detail of the lives of the characters and only then will the action and secrets and at times heartbreak come. Now I have realised this I feel I will be better prepared for what is to come in future books.
The Code Girls follows four women all from very different backgrounds but united when conscription for women is introduced. Through the bad times and brief glimmers of hope and happiness they work together and develop long lasting friendships while waiting hopefully for the horrors of war to become but a distant memory. Ava is a cook in a canteen in a mill in Bolton. She is tall, strong and athletic and has become very imaginative in the dinners she provides the workers considering rationing is in full force throughout the country. When she hears it is now compulsory to sign up for war work she knows she must do exactly that. She has such passion and loyalty towards her country and knows she cannot sit by while others sign up. She really wants to be a code girl and applies for a course in Walsingham Hall which belongs to the Walsingham family but has been turned over to the government to be used as a training base for the brave code girls.
To be honest I had never given much thought to code girls. I had seen them briefly mentioned in books I had read previously but never in such fascinating detail. Daisy Styles has done plenty of research which was interesting and informative yet never became too technical or boring to read. Code girls played such a crucial role during the war, they replaced the men gone away to fight and learned all sorts of new and valuable skills – decoding communications, Morse Code, tracking, signalling, interception and mapping. Unfortunately for Ava when she arrives at the hall it is only to discover that she is not suitable for the role and her heart is broken. I was annoyed on behalf of poor Ava, all she wanted was to do her bit for her country but the man is charge Brigadier Charles Rydal sees Ava's talents as a cook and employs her to work below stairs alongside family servant Ruby. This is far from what Ava expected but I loved how her character shone through and she was someone who always made the best of whatever situation she was placed in. Her character throughout the book showed strength, determination and courage and no matter how tired she was creating the endless meals for the code girls and R.A.F officers she just grinned and bared it and soldiered on. She goes through a lot in the book and there is a glimmer of romance but it was slow burning and not without its complications.
As mentioned above Ruby had been a long term resident of the hall working below stairs and now she is virtually doing most things herself as many others workers have left to sign up for the war. She is only too glad when Ava and the girls arrive. Initially I thought Ruby wouldn't have much of a storyline but as the book progress she had her own firm role to play and was never seen as any different from the others. Perhaps her story became the most heartbreaking of all and it seemed so unjust and unreal that events folded the way they did but she showed true grit and tenacity. I fully felt her pain, anguish and the pure horror. I suppose those times challenged every person in different ways and if it had all been plain sailing and a bed of roses it wouldn't have made for much of a book. I have to say Ruby did hold a special place in my heart, I felt her character was real and true and what she experienced endeared her to me all the more.
Maudie was the last of the girls to work below stairs. She came from a Jewish background in London and it was great to see a character who at the time would not have had the most easiest of experiences being included in the book. Her family had a bakery so she was well equipped to help the girls in providing the meals. Maudie throughout the story was proud and independent and never let world events affect how she did her job. She formed firm, solid, long lasting friendships with the girls and Daisy Styles really did highlight how everyone came together for one common cause. They may have been total strangers put together but after so long in each other's company and living in each others pockets and experiencing ups and downs both personally and professionally they all became lifelong friends with a bond that could never be broken. Maudie too experiences her fair share of heartbreak, tragedy and frustrations but like the others she is strong when she needs to be.
The final girl featured in the book is Anabelle (Bella) Walsingham, daughter of the owners of the hall. I have to say it was so refreshing to have someone from the upper classes so to speak engage with the ordinary folk if that is what you'd like to call them. Bella is different from the rest of her family who remain cold, aloof and indifferent to what is going on around them. They still want everything to remain the same even though their home has been requisitioned for war work. They act like nothing has changed and place unreasonable food demands on the girls. Bella was a different kettle of fish altogether. She was so down to earth and like Ava had a deep passion for cooking and was very inventive with the ingredients and produce at hand. She soon immersed herself with the girls downstairs and the reader quickly forgot she was part of the upper classes as she mucked in with everything. Bella was wise, clever and a good friend and I thought her storyline was one of the best and I never saw it coming. Yes her romantic plot line was good but it was the bigger events that she was connected to that left me open mouthed in horror that something like that could happen quite so close to home right underneath one's eyes. It brought tension and intrigue to the story and made the girls work even closer together to prevent evil triumphing over good. The author has a way of sucking you in and fooling you that nothing truly that bad could happen to the characters but as in the first book that twist when it came was shocking and upsetting and I wished it hadn't happened but again that's what made the majority of the aspects of the book so realistic and gripping.
Despite this only being Daisy Style's second book I feel she is a skilled talented author who writes realistic, enjoyable books and I am looking forward to the publication of The Bomb Girls Secrets in March 2017. If it's anything like The Code Girls I'll be in for a real treat.
I'd like to thank Emma for reviewing The Code Girls which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.