Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

63 thoughts on “Enigma by Robert Harris

  1. This is not fair, FictionFan! Not fair, sez I! Here I am trying to manage my TBR and you do this to me! 😉 – In all seriousness, I am glad you enjoyed this so well, as I thought you might given the author. What a fascinating topic, and in the hands of a good storyteller, it was bound to be a hit.

    • Ha! Serves you right after all the damage you’ve done to my TBR! 😉 It’s such a pleasure when everything about a book just comes together – too rare an occurrence! I haven’t read much of Harris yet, but he’s already become a firm favourite.

  2. I have read this, and it’s brilliant. An absolutely stunning novel. I grew up not too far from Bletchley so the place has always held a fascination for me. In fact, I might even have to go and read it again now you have reminded me about it, even though I am in the middle of another book. It’s a shame you couldn’t introduce a 6th star!! Great review, FF 🙂

  3. My views on this novel match your own, FF. Harris is one of those writers whose books I spread out one from the next, so as not to waste them in a binge. I have Archangel in my sights right now.

    • It’s great, isn’t it? I’ve only read a couple of his books so far, but they’ve both been brilliant. I have the first of his Roman ones, but I don’t like to binge on one author either so I’ll wait a bit… I’ll read it the next time I need cheering up after a run of plotless misery novels… 😉

  4. Your mother intercepted wartime signals, FF? No wonder this book resonated with you! It does indeed sound fascinating. I don’t believe I’ve read anything by this author before. Dadblame it, now I’m going to have to make time for another addition to my TBR … rats and a heifer!!

    • Apparently so, though they were all under a vow of secrecy even decades after the war was over so she never discussed it. I only found out from my aunt quite recently. But I suspect it wasn’t as exciting as it sounds – in the book Harris shows that mostly they weren’t even really aware of why they were doing it or whether it was doing any good. I’ve only read a couple of his books but they’ve both been brilliant, so he’s become a firm favourite already. Definitely a good addition to your TBR! 🙂

    • That’s interesting. I watched the movie last night and really didn’t think it lived up to the book at all. I suspected I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t read the book. I think the book is still well worth reading – there’s so much more depth to it than came through in the movie, I think. I’ll be doing a Film/Book comparison sometime in the next couple of weeks.

        • Yes, sometimes comparing the two can enhance both, but other times it makes the movie feel a bit like the poor relation. Though I’ve been doing it recently, I’m not sure I really recommend watching movies soon after reading their books. Fun, but a bit unfair on the movie…

  5. He’s excellent isn’t he? I love Fatherland and Ghost as well, His next one is out in September and is about the Catholic Church and the election of a new pope. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with that.

    • Isn’t he? I’ve only read this one and An Officer and a Spy so far, and love them both. So I’ve got loads to look forward to! I’ve got the first of his Roman ones which also sound great. And the new one really appeals – he researches so well that I’m sure it’ll give an authentic picture of that rather strange process…

    • I hadn’t either till very recently and this is only my second. But both have been fantastic reads – it’s the way he gets his research in without it feeling like you’re being given a history lesson. And many more of his books to look forward to! 😀

  6. I haven’t read this, but I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Robert Harris (An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero trilogy). I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Conclave, as well as catching up on his earlier books including this one, which sounds great!

    • I’ve only read this and An Officer and a Spy, and I’ve loved them both – this one even more than the other. Conclave sounds great – such an interesting choice of subject and, with the way he handles his research, it should be a treat. And I’ve got the first of his Roman books too – I love finding a new favourite author! 😀

  7. Oooh FictionFan, now you’ve made me want to read this one also..it sounds really good! I love this code-breaking spy thriller types..wonderful review.. 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 Definitely one I’d recommend – he’s a brilliant writer. All the code-breaking stuff was fascinating, and unlike some spy thrillers the plot was pretty easy to follow. I’m really loking forward to reading more of his books!

    • I’ve only read a couple of his books, but loved them both. He’s one of these people who really knows how to mix great research with a great story – really looking forward to reading more of him. 🙂

    • Haha! Well, that probably makes it sound a bit more dramatic than it actually was, but yes, she worked in Signals, intercepting the German coded messages that were passed on to Bletchley Park for decoding. I think my mum rather enjoyed the war…

      In all seriousness, for once, I think this might be one you’d enjoy. Robert Harris probably has more male fans than female, in fact. I watched the movie the other night – review soon. It was good, but not as good as the book, I thought – but I also thought I’d have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read the book.

        • Nah, you’d have been in Bletchley breaking the codes! And saving the convoys from the U-boats…

          Hmm… can anyone ever be sure about the Professor’s likes and dislikes? #baffled You could have warned me about the dog in I Am Legend… *sobs bitterly*

  8. Great review of a great book. I’ve never read a Harris that wasn’t brilliant. I think Fatherland is somewhere on your TBR?

    • Thank you! Not yet, but it will be. The one I have next is Imperium, which I think is the first in his Roman trilogy? But I can see I’ll be making my way through all his stuff – I’ve loved both of the ones I’ve read so far. Such a pleasure to read a really good story!

  9. I do just prefer his factual novels, but this does sound as if it could tempt me further. I did enjoy Fatherland and Archangel, but not AS much as Officer and Spy and Imperium. Perhaps I feel the need to be entertainingly historically educated!

    • I’ve only read this and An Officer and a Spy, so not a big enough sample yet. But I marginally preferred this one, partly just because I’m more interested in this part of history, and partly because this one is past tense. I think this one would almost count as factual – though the story is fictional, the setting and historical context is all real and brilliantly portrayed. I’m looking forward to the Roman ones…

    • Can’t go wrong with a bit of moral ambiguity! With this one, I didn’t think it did the movie any favours to watch it so soon after reading the book, so I think leaving a long gap is a good idea. The book’s nearly always better anyway!

  10. Ok, I just read it, and I liked it a lot, but there were times when it seemed to be emotionally distant, somehow, I didn’t feel involved all the time..but the code-breaking parts were really good, proper pulse-quickening stuff, and I think I’m a bit in love with the nerdy Jericho..have to watch the movie now..I have to confess I was hoping he and Hester would end up together (this is all Bollywood effect)..your mother was at Bletchley!!!! Oh God, that feels so exciting!! But considering the picture the book paints, it couldn’t have been that exciting for the ladies.. 😐 I liked his women characters though..one flighty and flirty, the other: genius shunted to the side..

    • Hmm, yes, I know what you mean about the emotional distance, but I actually quite like that in a book – sometimes, anyway, when there’s a strong plot and lots of other stuff to hold my interest. I loved Jericho too – my kind of man, in truth, but don’t tell Darcy! I started out hoping they might get together but in the end I was glad they didn’t – it felt more realistic the way he ended it, I thought. And yes, I was very impressed by his female characters – quite often male writers don’t get strong women very well, do they? But I thought both Hester and Claire were very believable.

      Well, she wasn’t in Bletchley itself but out at one of the listening posts where they intercepted the German messages in Morse code. I suspect it was dull at the time, but exciting to think about now!! 😀

      Glad you enjoyed the book – and I hope you enjoy the film too… 😀

      • Yes it is rather exciting! Sometimes I wonder what our children would make of our jobs..oooh my mum was an IT Engineer..that’s soo thrilling, will say nobody ever.. 😛

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