The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester is set during the dangerous days of World War II, where Honey Deschamps—who spends her days transcribing decrypted messages at Bletchley Park—starts to receive bizarrely coded packages. When everyone is keeping secrets, who can you trust?
There were two things that separated the Park estate, that sat along the lane from Bletchley station, from others like it. The first was the eight-foot chain-link fence that surrounded the perimeter, topped by curls of barbed wire. The second was the people.
The Park buzzed like a university campus at most times of day, but it was something else to watch at changeover time, which came every eight hours. Quarter to eight in the morning and a patch of land no bigger than the Buckingham Palace grounds would be transformed into the like of London’s Piccadilly Circus. In each direction, to and fro, close to a thousand people poured past the gates, on foot and bicycle, waving papers at the red-capped staff of the Military Police, spilling out of khaki rusting buses and grey jeeps and the glossy black Rollers requisitioned for the purpose.
You could tell the ones coming off night shift even before they got onto the buses by their faces: brains leeched of energy but still doing the jitterbug overtime. Their clothes would smell of the coke stoves kept inside the Park’s huts. The Wrens—the Women’s Royal Navy Service—could be picked out by their blue uniform, skewed after a night doing whatever furtive and noisy things they did inside the wood walls of Hut 11.
On paper, Honey Deschamps is a typist for the Foreign Office. Her own mother thinks she works in a normal office and does light secretarial work for the war effort. But in truth, Honey works at Bletchley Park: a highly covert place of strict regulations where the brightest minds in England frantically break German and Italian codes in the hope of stopping another bombing, another raid, or another torpedoing.
Honey’s world is one of deadly secrets, where forgetting your identity papers is unthinkable, where you simply do not ask questions of your coworkers, where the slightest bending of the rules could be grounds for termination.
And the superiors aren’t talking euphemistically about the job.
On her first day at the Park, after she had replied to and signed the letter her stepfather had brought home; after she had followed the instructions and taken the train to Bletchley; after she had made the telephone call from the station, waited for the car, sat freezing in the back while it crawled a slow path towards the mansion; after she had paused at the gate while the Military Policeman checked the identity cards of everyone inside, their rifles pressed flat between their bodies and the car doors; after she had stepped out onto the gravel, taken a seat opposite the man in the oak-panelled room who introduced himself as Captain Tiver; after she had taken his expensive pen, tried not to sweat on its enamel octagonal casing, placed her quivering hand so that nib met paper and scratched a leaky signature across the Official Secrets Act; after she had done all that, Tiver had taken a revolver from his desk, thumped it on the wood, and said as calmly as if he was ordering sherry, “If you break the Official Secrets Act, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Which is why Honey is understandably frightened when she begins receiving mysterious packages. Packages from Leningrad, which fell to Hitler’s forces a year ago. Packages that somehow made it past Russian and English censors. Packages containing pieces of amber etched with codes that remind her of stories her brother used to tell her as a child—stories of their missing Russian father who had been the custodian of the Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace…
Honey knows she should report the packages and hand over the coded amber. She should throw it all away so as not to be found with such dangerous evidence. But with each new package, she becomes more determined to decode the message and track down the person sending them.
Could they truly be from her lost father, trying desperately to reconnect, in terrible danger in Nazi-occupied Russia? Is this an elaborate hoax concocted by her dreamer of a brother, a ballet dancer and conscientious objector to the war? Or is this a trap laid by her superiors, testing her loyalty and trustworthiness?
Will this mystery end with a happy reunion, tears—or a firing squad?
“Keeping your head,” Beatrix interrupted, “in a place like this is the only thing that matters. Whatever happens.” She loosened her grip but kept hold of Honey’s hand. “When I think of what the alternative could be. Stitching boys with blown-open faces, standing by during amputations, driving ambulances. I really am grateful to be doing something. Like this.” She stroked Honey’s fingers thoughtfully, one at a time. “No matter what happens, no matter what secrets you have to carry, keep your head.” She drowned the dregs of her tea and stood up.
Honey watched the path of Beatrix’s footsteps back to the counter and heard the scatter of bright conversation she had with the woman behind the till. And she thought for the first time in her life how wretched it was to be a woman. War was ferocious to men. But when it was over the ones left would go back to their lives. For a woman, there would always be pillaged wages, affairs broken off, promises unfulfilled, family shame, babies to be hidden in unmarked graves, in wooden drawers.
The Amber Room is undeniably a war story, rife with vivid historical details and an atmosphere of oppressive death and fear. But it’s more akin to a Hitchcockian psychological thriller than a historical set piece, and this is no accident. Lucy Ribchester heavily doses the ensuing claustrophobia and paranoia with overt references to the British director’s work.
When we first meet Honey, she’s just leaving a showing of Suspicion, and her mind is full of Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant. She’s convinced Grant was an insidious murderer and Fontaine a fool for trusting him in the end. Later, she watches Rebecca and invites the mysterious Felix Plaidstow to see Shadow of a Doubt. The novel even opens with a scene reminiscent of Strangers on a Train.
Honey may think Joan Fontaine a fool in Hitchcock’s thrillers, but by story’s end, it’s clear that she’s following in her character’s footsteps. She, too, finds herself wrapped in a web of trickery, deceit, secrets, and murder, shadowed by a dangerous, mysterious man. And, like the ladies of Hitchcock’s films, Honey is also constantly gaslighted by the people around her.
This is a singularly female thriller. Ribchester paints an unflinchingly honest, gritty picture of what life during the war was for women. There is no starry-eyed romance here between noble soldiers and hardworking women; instead, we see how easily the soldiers could cheat and abandon their wartime sweethearts, how easily a woman could be ruined for “doing her part for the war effort” while the men walked off blemish-free.
The ladies of Bletchley Park are paid less than half of what their male counterparts make despite doing the same work or—in the case of Honey’s friend Moira—doing a better job of it. Constant condescension, casual sexual harassment, and the threat of being sent to a mental asylum for being “uncooperative” permeate the narrative. The climax is all the more terrifying because Honey knows screams for help will go unheeded in this society that so often ignores or unfairly punishes women who dare to stand out.
Ribchester weaves together all of this gender commentary, historical detail, and knuckle-whitening tension into a story that continually loops back on itself, with previous details coming back in big ways to snap the picture into better focus. Honey has a nasty knot of lies, fantasies, and hard truths to untangle by the end.
Which, in true Hitchcock fashion, is a bittersweet and bloody one.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.