'The Secrets Act' is a tense, gripping 'whodunnit' cloaked in wartime paranoia. Alison Weatherby has written an assured YA debut that thrillingly explores the personal and political perils of being a young woman at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Intricately plotted, with superb twists and turns, you'll rifle through the pages, desperate to decode its mysteries.
Ellen is a codebreaker. Pearl delivers Top Secret messages. At seventeen, both girls are working at Bletchley Park - the home of the Enigma machine. Signing the Secrets Act, the girls understand what is a stake. But when a close friend is killed, nothing is certain. Ellen and Pearl must work together to solve what has happened and root out a potential spy. Who can they trust? And will their relationships obscure their logic?
Firstly, what I enjoyed most about 'The Secrets Act' is following the experience of two young women at such a historically significant place as Bletchley Park. Obviously we all know about the Enigma Machine and Alan Turing. But what about the women, and young women, who worked tirelessly to help the code-breakers achieve their goal to win the war? Alison Weatherby's greatest achievement here is to bring to life Ellen and Pearl as fully-rounded, flawed, but nonetheless brilliant late teenagers who are very much of their time too - in language, class and habits. But there's more too. Ellen is clearly neurodivergent, perhaps autistic, and Weatherby renders her with huge amounts of courage and smarts to navigate the dangers of war but also the difficulties of forming relationships with others, including boys. Weatherby also includes a gay character, but again it is written with subtlety and with sensitivity towards the context of the times. On the one hand, this is a story about secrets and codes, but it's also about the personal secrets people keep - how communicating is often flawed, even dangerous at times.
This is also a book full of atmosphere. Everything is on edge - the external events of war and the emotional inner lives these young women lead. A recent comparison title is Robin Scott-Elliot's 'Hide and Seek' (published last year) about a young girl who becomes involved in the spy networks of the French Resistance. 'The Secrets Act' is similar but wholly based in England and more mature in its exploration of young romances and political perils.
I really recommend 'The Secrets Act' to older readers interested in the lives of young women who helped turn the tide of the Second World War at home. Riveting stuff!
Thank you to Laura Smythe and Chicken House for my copy to review.