On the air

Penelope Fitzgerald's Human voices was a real treat. Set in Broadcasting House during the Second World War, Human voices follows the people who lived, loved and worked for the BBC in the early days of the war. Struggling to maintain a normal programming schedule in less than normal conditions; and determined to tell the nation the truth whether or not the war was going well for the allies.

The characters are glowingly real, and the story is set in a period that was oddly both more innocent, but also more shocking. People die horribly with little or no warning, and babies are born in the most inappropriate places. This strange dislocation is reflected both in the BBC's attempts to keep jovial pre-war scheduling while having to tell its audience some scary truths, and in the everyday lives of Londoners, who are trying to hold on to normality while camping on the platforms of the Tube.

Fitzgerald worked at the BBC during the War, and the background to the story is assembled from her memories. As a result the mores of the time are very upfront, the casual sexism of the day can make for uneasy reading. Set against this though is one of the most beautiful descriptions of falling in love I've ever read. Fitzgerald's writing is luminous, and she can transform a simple story line into magic with a few brief brushes of her pen.

She's not an author that everyone is going to love. Indeed the reviews on Goodreads suggested that the novel inspired as much loathing as liking. I adored it though, and must read more Fitzgerald.


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