Nobody could be more startled than me when declaring that A TIME OF SECRETS was a most enjoyable book to read. Startled because ostensibly it looks, feels, smells like a romance. With an historical bent, and some mystery within.
Certainly in reading this book the romance is foremost in the narrative, equalled by the difficulties of living within war-footing Melbourne, followed eventually by the mystery of the traitor within the ranks of the Australian Intelligence Bureau. What makes that balance work is probably the historical background though. Romance in that day makes sense. With the world being turned on its head, and the possibility that anyone could be lost, dead or captured overseas at any point, the idea that people want a personal connection is understandable. This author covers these aspects with restraint, making her characters stumble often enough to make them realistic and certainly not soppy or idealistic. The central character of Stella Aldridge is part of the strength. A woman widowed during the war, she's not exactly grieving a violent and nasty husband, but sad about the manner of his death, and the failure of her marriage. Her wariness with that background is understandable, as is her very human desire to get it right a second time around. Stella's no victim despite what has happened to her in the past. She's also no fool and (eventually) is able to pick the wolves from the hounds. The potential of a love triangle here is intriguing as well.
It's not a one hander story though and there are a number Aldridge's colleagues at the AIB who get a good airing. There's plenty of professional, as well as romantic tension in the AIB amongst many men and women vying for each other's attention. Aldridge's flatmate adds a level of mania with her ongoing relationship with her American beau constantly threatened by her dalliances with other men, although the standout character at home is the downstairs neighbour, Mrs Campbell who is fun, wise, cheeky and a great, if not slightly vague observer.
Within the mystery elements, there's a traitor being sought, and much of that quest is being done in secret. Specialist overseas missions - particularly into Papua New Guinea and nearby are going pear-shaped with the Japanese Army having specific and dangerous knowledge about what the Allies are up to. It could be that this traitor is very high up in AIB management, but there are clues in radio transcripts and the processing of information that eventually point Aldridge and her boss Nick Ross in the right direction. There's an interesting pointer in the back of the book that explains the real life situation that much of that mystery is based on. Obviously for this reader, once we got to this part of the plot things improved greatly and the way that the traitor was identified - and many of the little clues that indicated something was indeed badly wrong in the communications transmissions - were fascinating.
Throughout the book there are lots of other connections, a shared love of architecture and the descriptions of war-footing Melbourne, from the camps in parks in South Yarra, and the Toorak mansions seconded to house military groups, through to the brownout and the nightlife that people were determined to pursue in the face of rationing and shortages.
Goes to show that when the story's really well researched and told with great passion and authority, even something that has such a hefty dose of romance can work for a reader whose preference is normally to walk somewhere much darker than Melbourne in a 1943 brownout.