When British listeners tuned in to the BBC's Nine O'Clock News in the middle of 1940, they had no idea what human dramas-and follies-were unfolding behind the scenes. Targeted by enemy bombers, the BBC had turned its concert hall into a dormitory for both sexes, and personal chaos rivaled the political. The tense relationship between two departmental directors is at the center of Human Voices, as is Annie, a sixteen-year-old assistant who falls hopelessly in love with the monstrously selfish one. Reading this intimate glimpse behind the scenes of the BBC in its heyday, "one is left with the sensation," William Boyd wrote in London Magazine, "that this is what is was really like.""Having come late to fiction--she was past 60 when her first novel appeared--Penelope Fitzgerald has made up for lost time. Three of her nine books were shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize, whish she won in 1979 for Offshore. Her novel The Blue Flower, based on the life of the German poet Novalis, nabbed the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Awards are one thing, talent's another, and Fitzgerald has it in spades. Warm and wry, her writing is as economical as it is perfect. It's always a pleasure to see a new book under her name." The Washington Post "Fitzgerald is one of the finest living English writers, and readers acquainted only with her prize-winning historical novel of Germany, "The Blue Flower," will relish encountering her on her home territory. Her beautifully economic fictions are always alive with meticulous, surprising phrases, whether she's conveying the expectant dread in England in 1940, when invasion seemed imminent, or writing about something more pragmatic, such as workers carrying on "with the exalted remorselessness characteristic of anyone who starts moving furniture." Salon
This story is based at BBC Broadcasting House in the Second World War (a situation I think the author had first hand knowledge of). It's quite odd in some ways, full of acronyms that aren't always explained, and populated with characters who may or may not stay for the course of the book. I found it totally charming to read though. And very funny in places to boot.
At times the writing is brilliantly funny. At times it is incredibly atmospheric, almost as chaotic as the myriad of storylines and interests racing through the city at that time. But it is the characters, or rather the characters with Character that make this story come to life. Fitzgerald abjures caricature. The characters, however peculiar they might appear, are entirely recognisable British figures. That she can make us care for them is a remarkable testament to her skill. And while the madcap nature of some of the events links this novel back to her first hilarious effort with The Golden Child, the studied intelligence of the presentation of an entire complex, even byzantine, structure points towards Fitzgerald’s late great novels.
This novel draws upon her wartime experiences at Broadcasting House, which she portrays in a loving, though far from hagiographical, way. In this novel, set in 1940, just after Churchill’s accession to Downing Street, truth was paramount, and the Beeb strove to render as impartial an account as possible of the progress of the war. Of course, for the overwhelming majority of the country, the BBC meant radio in those days, television being very much a minority interest.
While its campaign to retain independence from governmental influence was being maintained, it was also riven by internal strife, between the Department for Recorded Programmes and the Directorate of Programme Planning, responsible for live broadcasts. Sam Brooks, the head of the former, is a dreamer, forever seeking to capture the essence of Englishness through recordings of everyday activity (perhaps not too dissimilar from the segments of ‘Slow Radio’ that have become so integral to Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sunday mornings), while his live broadcast counterpart, Jeffery Haggard, is eager to have every news bulletin, and any political speeches, delivered live across the air.
Fitzgerald indulges in some gentle and entertaining satire, such as when the ageing French General Pinard, having freshly escaped from the German Occupation back home, is invited to address the country. His speech goes off at a wholly unexpected tangent before he succumbs, almost fortuitously, to what proves to be a fatal coughing fit.
It is, however, principally a novel about individuals, and their relationships, and Fitzgerald deftly captures the friendships, interdependencies and petty jealousies of people from different backgrounds forced to work together in often uncomfortable proximity. Reflecting its time, all of the women fulfil sadly subservient roles within the BBC, although they emerge as by far the stronger characters. How different might the story have been if there had been a Carrie Gracie on hand to galvanise their spirits.
It is almost pointless to review Human Voices. The prose is as close to perfect as is possible. It is in parts genuinely, that most over-used of cliches, 'laugh out loud funny'. What really makes it special is that it is not just what is said that is funny but how it is said. The conversation about filing cabinets being a case in point.
I don't need to review this...buy it...read it...