This past year has felt like a long, cold absence. No parties. No plays. No concerts. No celebrations. No funerals for the dead…just grief without resolve.
Having survived this, it’s easy to relate to Lucy Barrett, the protagonist in the novel Censorettes. It’s 1941, and she’s huddled behind blackout curtains in her London home as German bombs rain down over the city. While she worries about being killed in a German air raid, she also thinks about her brother who served in the Royal Air Force until he disappeared in Dunkirk, and her mother who was recently killed in a bomb attack while helping refugees find housing.
Lucy’s father learns that the Imperial Censorship Detachment’s office in London has been bombed and now plans to relocate to Bermuda. The Detachment scrutinizes transatlantic correspondence, looking for codes and secret messages. They’re in need of smart, multi-lingual women who can read correspondence in several languages and look for signs pointing to spy rings and secret ammunition transports. Lucy would be perfect for the job. She speaks four languages and is practically a Shakespeare scholar. Further, the job would remove her from the war.
If one’s looking for refuge, there’s hardly a place better than Bermuda. The islands sit off to themselves—643 miles east of North Carolina. Palm trees, pink sand beaches, cerulean waters, and the Bermuda High provide more than just a lovely landscape temperate climate. Add to this the rum swizzles, Gombey performers, grottoes, and humpback whales, and it’s about as near to paradise as one might ever be.
Even so, Lucy puts up a fuss. She wants to stay in London, fight out the war at home with her father. Yet, he responds with tough love, and orders her out of the house by the end of the week.
Lucy leaves in anger, but once her eyes spot the “cossetted island of keen colours, coral beaches, sunsets, pastel-painted limestone houses bearing up rain-scrubbed white roofs,” her mood lifts. Maybe…just maybe, she thinks, this might turn out okay. For the most part, it does.
Censorettes is a work of fiction, but it’s inspired by real women code breakers who worked in Bermuda, serving under the diminutive title, Censorettes.
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s story revolves around Lucy and her three whip-smart roommates, all dealing with personal losses and traumas. Like Lucy, they’ve come to Bermuda to escape, heal, and help the Allies. The four take over the Hamilton Princess Hotel’s bridal suite. While designed for “newlyweds of the upper crust, film stars, bits and bobs of minor royalty,” it’s empty until the girls move in.
If the reader isn’t already hooked by this story, here the relationships of the women deepen as they build a life together. They section off little rooms in the suite. They bustle about dressmaking, hair-braiding, clothes swapping, and secret-sharing.
They drag in a piano, and soon the rooms fill with music and song. As Lucy plays the tenth movement of the Bach cantata, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Ruth wriggles next to her on the piano bench and leans her head onto her shoulder, “such a rare physical demonstration that Lucy didn’t dare move. Ruth picked up the sheet music. Lucy winced and then relaxed, since if anyone could be trusted to handle a precious document, it was a Censorette.”
Rebecca Lark, a natural caregiver and healer, treats Lucy with much needed tenderness and compassion. Whenever Lucy is “wrenched awake from visions of her mother, the Blitz, her brother, she found provisions from Lark resting on her bedside table: a cup of tea, a peach-coloured rose, a freshly-ironed pillowcase to replace her tear-dampened one.”
On evenings and weekends, local servicemen drop by to join in what Lucy describes as “the unending garden party.” Friends circle the piano, play instruments, sing Big Band tunes, and drink homemade cocktails. My mind flashed back to the early scenes in the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot, about a women’s band troupe traveling town to town on a train. One night, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) discovers a secret bottle of bourbon and wakes everyone up. The close quarters of the train car fill with laughter and quick-witted banter.
In Bermuda, Lucy not only makes friends, but dates Lieutenant William Inman. He’s the first American Lucy meets and laughs at his accent, particularly the way he says, Loo-tenant. “There was much that was honeylike about Loo-tenant Inman,” Lucy says. “His hazel eyes, his dark blond hair, his sticky sense of his own charm. He smiled at her appraisal of him.”
Love and friendship are the central themes of this book. Yet, it’s language—all its nuances and variations—that’s a constant thread running through the story. Frank, who’s not only a writer, but a librarian, shows us how language can be encrypted and twisted for subversion. As soon as Lucy begins working for the Detachment, she discovers a letter with Shakespeare misquotes, followed by another one, by the same author, with strange bumps.
In the apartment, there’s a persistent volley of witty language between the four women and their companions—a display of intimacy, friendship, even love. Lucy feasts on the “patois of private jokes and pet names.” However, when she awakens to the fact that she and the Loo-tenant don’t share this kind of closeness, she knows it’s about to stall.
Outside the apartment, a world war rages. Each day, secrets cross the Censorettes’ hands. Money, power, and the fate of nations ride on these deceptions, and some people would just as soon kill than have their secrets exposed.
Murder does occur, and the Censorettes swing into action. They pool their talents, resources, and expertise to track down the killer.
Censorettes takes readers on an adventure full of twists and turns—a much-needed break from the pandemic gloom. In the end, this cast of loveable code-crackers reminds us, even in the bleakest of times, there’s nothing better than a true friend.
Debbie Hagan is a Massachusetts writer and book reviews editor for Brevity. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, River Teeth, Hyperallergic, Superstition Review, Boston Globe, and elsewhere.