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Secret Duties of a Signals Interceptor

Jenny Nater.
Bletchley Park seems to be in vogue at the moment, with the recent Benedict Cumberbatch movie: “The Imitation Game” and BBC1’s “The Bletchley Circle,” it seems like the code-cracking former secret installation is a popular venue for fiction and non-fiction alike. It was with high hopes that I started reading “Secret Duties of a Signals Interceptor” by Jenny Nater.

The early pages are a brief history of Nater’s childhood and family, coming from a position of some affluence and raising her into an urbane, sophisticated young lady; worldly wise already at the age of eighteen and fluent in German, her linguistic skills giving her an “in” with SDS (Special Duties Service).

Meeting the young MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) captain, Rick Cornish leads to a slow-burning romance. The book reprints the young couple’s love letters to each other and relays the achingly honest exchange of a couple who grasp every spare moment together in the face of a cold and unrelenting war. This is where the book paradoxically succeeds and fails. It succeeds, because the reader is rooting for the pair, hoping that their love will transcend the cold, wet war they are both engaged in. It fails because the intimacy of the couple’s letters, (although not smutty in the least), verges on voyeurism and it feels wrong to be this involved in the couple’s relationship. Every moment of doubt is shared: every frustrated word and apology.

The book covers Jenny’s post-war experiences and her nascent hopes after the bitterness of World War Two and the personal losses she had to bear with her ever-dwindling pool of friends and colleagues.

The last quarter of the book takes a slightly different approach and is more structured and better for doing so. Without a narrative structure, this collection of love letters, increasingly desperate in tone, flounders without the relevant background information. Occasionally, an explanatory message appears before or during a letter, but I can’t help feel that the source evidence would be better presented in a story format and the letters acting as props to hang the narrative on, rather than be the narrative.

Unfortunately, what the book promises, but hardly touches upon is the intrigue of OSS or the clandestine operations of the SDS or Bletchley Park. There are no revelations, no insight and rare mention of covert operations, other than in passing. Whilst the book is an interesting collection of love letters, there are no James Bond moments, no espionage or tales of derring-do, which wouldn’t be an issue, if the dust jacket hadn’t hinted heavily that it would feature within the book. If a different marketing approach had been taken, with the book promoted as a straightforward wartime romance, I would have been more forgiving, but when combined with the numerous spelling errors (loose when the author means lose for example), it impacted my enjoyment of this book.

Still recommended, but with the caveats mentioned above – you won’t be reading a detailed account of operations within the secret community, but a collection of forlorn love letters between a doomed couple.

3 mushroom heads.

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