From the Booker Prizewinning author of 'Offshore' and 'The Blue Flower'; a funny, touching, authentic story of life at Broadcasting House during the Blitz. The human voices of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel are those of the BBC in the first years of the World War II, the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes, the whole building became a target for enemy bombers, and in the BBC - as elsewhere - some had to fail and some had to die, but where the Nine O'Clock News was always delivered, in impeccable accents, to the waiting nation.
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.
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...
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.
But mostly, "Human Voices" is about the importance of telling the truth, which, according to the author, who worked at the BBC during this period, the Beeb committed it to doing, as much as it could. And it's also about getting the job done: this book makes you understand how aware Britons were during the Second World War of how precarious their survival was, and how doing any job took an enormous amount of mental fortitude. It's a good description of what George Orwell called "writing inside the whale," working under conditions so dangerous as to be unimaginable, yet still managing, somehow, carry on. There are some lighthearted bits in "Human Voices," but most of it is, understandably, suffused with dread. Weeks seem to last months, and months years. Characters float in and out of the story, die suddenly, and undergo huge life changes in just a few paragraphs. "Human Voices" characters know that they are living in momentous times, and, by and large, act accordingly. Many of them have flaws, but, by the time I finished this one for the second time, I had found a lot to admire about just about all of them. Recommended.