Review: Censorettes by Elizabeth Bales Frank

Hard times out there. Between politics in the United States and the coronavirus pandemic worldwide, it doesn’t seem like we can get a break, can we? I live in Paris, and France has just re-entered a nationwide lockdown. It’s supposed to end on December 1st, but I’m betting something a little closer to the holidays.

While I am a natural homebody, I do really enjoy living in Paris and everything that goes along with it — the café culture, the museums, the picturesque neighborhood that I live in which just happens to be perfect for a stroll. In any case, lockdown gives me a chance to catch up on my never-ending pile of work and books. Emphasis on the books because who likes working anyway?

Reading has always been a nice escape for me. I can remember when I first latched onto it as a kid and that was one of my favorite parts: I could be curled up on the couch or in my bedroom, but be miles, worlds, or years away. So, when I was recently given the opportunity to read a new historical fiction (my favorite kind!), I jumped at the chance. Enter, Elizabeth Bales Frank’s latest novel, Censorettes, the perfect confinement read (in French “lockdown” is called confinement. So serious).

Censorettes may be fiction, but it is based on actual events that occurred in Bermuda in World War II. Mid-twentieth century history just happens to be of interest to me. Ever since I can remember I was always fascinated by the time period, the Second World War, and everything that goes along with it. And, since we seem to be living in a world not so far off from “way” back then (with the addition of high-speed internet and smartphones), it seems appropriate to brush up on history.

Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work first caught my eye because I had never head of the Censorettes — a division of British Intelligence stationed on Bermuda during WWII. The Censorettes were a group of talented women who were scouted by the British military to intercept mail going between North America and Europe. They were responsible for combing through thousands, if not more, of letters and correspondences. These women were on the lookout for anything unusual, notably, letters from Nazi sympathizers in the United States to their friends in Germany.

Frank’s novel follows one Censorette in particular, Lucy Barrett. Lucy grew up in London with her parents Paul and Tessa, and her siblings Matty and Marcia. Tessa was Italian and was killed in a London bombing at the start of WWII. Matty is a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and Marcia is home safe with her Granny. The reader will quickly understand that Lucy led a rather privileged life and was given the best education available to her. She is fluent in Italian (thanks to her mother), French, and German, making her the perfect candidate for the Censorettes.

Except, Lucy doesn’t want to go. She resents her father for sending her away and gets the feeling that he only does so due to her resemblance to her late mother. Despite her objections, Lucy is sent to Bermuda to join the ranks of the Censorettes.

Here, she meets several other women, notably Rebecca Lark, Georgie Taylor, and Ruth Smith. Lucy calls Rebecca “Lark,” as all of the Censorettes are called by their last names, a nod to the fact that they are indeed a branch of the British military. Interestingly enough, she sticks to Georgie and Ruth for her other friends. Each woman possesses her own unique talents, which are further revealed as the novel goes on.

Much of the beginning of the novel is spent bringing the reader into the Censorette’s world: the ins and outs of their roles, their lodgings, and what happens when the American military comes to the island.

But, what the novel focuses on the most, is the friendship between the Censorettes. And, honestly, it’s why I loved this book so much. As you read, you immediately become attached to the characters and the relationships that they create and nurture. The women are extremely affectionate with one another, another point that I really enjoyed. It’s very rare to find a piece of literature that normalizes female closeness and affection, and so it was really refreshing to read here.

Another part of the novel that can’t be ignored is the fact that nearly every female character goes against and challenges the gender expectations of the 20th century. It is a reminder that although women didn’t have as much agency as they do today, they weren’t all shut up in their parlors knitting something. When it comes to the Censorettes, especially, these women were expert translators, chemists, experienced spies, and more. The reader is also introduced to other characters such as nurses who played a vital role in the war effort.

I won’t spoil any of the rest of the book for you, but believe me, it is filled with intrigue. I forgot to mention that there is even a murder mystery portion of the novel, which isn’t at all as cheesy as it sounds. If you love history, strong female characters, and even stronger female friendships, I’m sure you’ll love Censorettes just as much as I did.

You can purchase Censorettes by Elizabeth Bales Frank directly from Stonehouse Publishing here.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on November 6, 2020.

Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

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