Author: Deborah Burrows
A Time of Secrets is the third novel by Deborah Burrows and the third set in World War II, though this one boasts a change of scenery and is set in Melbourne as opposed to Perth as were the previous two. I read and loved A Stranger In My Street back in 2012 so was thrilled to see this one come across my desk. It took me longer to get to than I would have liked but I think the timing ended up perfect. I read it in the week leading up to ANZAC day and I sit writing this on the eve of ANZAC day when we are all remembering the brave men and women that fought for our country.
In wartime Melbourne there are army uniforms everywhere, both American and Australian. The world is at war and in Melbourne the fighting is often between the Australians and the Americans as the Americans woo Australian women with public displays of affection and gifts that the Australians just can’t get their hands on in this time of rationing.
Burrows has woven an intricate tale of romance, intrigue and history that is difficult to put down. To then discover that parts of the narrative were modelled on an actual intelligence mission and an actual branch of the Allied Intelligence Bureau made the book that much more captivating.
Stella Aldridge is a sergeant in the the Australian Women’s Army working at the APLO (Australian Pacific Liaison Office), a department widely believed to be about spreading propaganda; which is only one of their roles. The more important role is the organisation of intelligence gathering missions in enemy territory.
I found Stella to be quite a contradiction because she comes across as quite proper but as we get to know her we uncover an artistic past in which she enjoyed intimate encounters, she is widowed and yet she keeps her distance from men now and will only cultivate platonic friendships.
There is a lot going on in A Time of Secrets and with Stella working in Intelligence it becomes crystal clear where the term ‘loose lips sink ships’ came from. You can never be sure who can be trusted and you need to be wary of those who ask lots of questions. The book is set in wartime so there is lots of history here about Melbourne during WWII going on in the background. The American marines here sweeping our women off their feet, the rations, the brownouts, the fraternisation rules (and their flaunting).
The main focus ends up being on the top secret Destro mission which may or may not be compromised but it certainly needs investigation because too many men involved in that mission are being lost.
Alongside that we have axe attacks, domestic violence, petty thievery and a Lieutenant who just made my blood boil. There was definitely never a dull moment and yet Stella still found herself embroiled in a tricky love triangle.
All of the characters were vividly written, some more likeable than others, but Burrows certainly managed to draw us into life in Melbourne circa 1943. Stella is our leading lady and she is a sweetheart, there’s no other way for me to describe her. She will always go out of her way to help people, she will try to see the best in everyone and she will always do what she thinks is right, even when it isn’t easy.
Dolly owns the flat that Stella has moved into, she also works at APLO and she is very different to Stella. Her tastes and her lifestyle aren’t designed to deal with the privations of war so she befriends many an American because she likes the gifts. She isn’t intimate with all of them, many of them just want some company and conversation and Dolly is happy to oblige but her indiscretions may have a lasting affect on her livelihood if her rich American beau finds her out.
Also living in their building is singer Violet Smith, also a member of the Australian Women’s Army Service, and the 89 year old widow Mrs Campbell who loves a gossip and is sharper than anyone gives her credit for.
A Time of Secrets explores the nature of war as well as the nature of the men and women fighting the war. Staff Sergeant Eric Lund made quite the impression on Stella and throughout the narrative we get to see the different sides of him. He is a highly trained, efficient, soldier with finely honed skills on the ground and commando training – in short an efficient killing machine. Stella abhors violence and this side of him is a definite turn off.
Burrows has done a commendable job of separating the soldiers from the men they would be outside the war, the men they were before the war. In some cases also allowing us a look at the events that shaped the men they have become.
Mystery, romance, a race against the clock and an interesting love triangle make for compelling reading in a well paced and plotted novel bringing Australian wartime history to the forefront. There was some predictability but for the most part the intrigue was well cloaked until the appropriate moment. One thing that I’m not sure really whether I love or hate is that not everything has been tied up nicely, there is still a question or two left unanswered. I’m not sure whether I like being left to come to my own conclusions or if I feel I really need to know.
Another brilliant offering by the very talented Australian historian and writer Deborah Burrows. I read the debut but missed Taking a Chance so I think it’s time I rectified that.
A Time of Secrets is book #21 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.