In 1940, as World War II heats up, the BBC is doing its best to fulfill its singular mission: saving Britain from despondency and panic without resorting to lies. "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth." Surrounded by sandbags that are literally going to seed, this London landmark has come to resemble an ocean liner both inside and out. "With the best engineers in the world," Penelope Fitzgerald observes, "and a crew varying between the intensely respectable and the barely sane, it looked ready to scorn any disaster of less than Titanic scale." Though there are no icebergs in Human Voices, Fitzgerald's perfectly pitched 1980 novel, danger does loom on several decks.
For a start, the Department of Recorded Programmes (DRP) is in for a shakeup. Sam Brooks, its director (RPD), has long ruffled the Controllers' feathers owing to his need for several nubile assistants--no wonder his unit is sometimes labeled the Seraglio. This time, however, his penchant for young women isn't the issue. Instead, it's the fact that RPD takes his calling too seriously. For instance, in response to a directive that England's heritage not be lost, he and a crack team once spent two weeks recording a creaky church door in Heather Lickington. At this point, only Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning (DPP), can save Sam; but having done that for the past 10 years, DPP is suffering from severe BBC battle fatigue.
As Penelope Fitzgerald follows this pair--and several other employees--her novel melds tragedy, surrealism, and satire into one endlessly surprising whole. As ever, she captures the momentous in the smallest moment--the joys of an orange in wartime, the pleasures of piano tuning, and the painful twists of love. When the newest member of the Seraglio makes the mistake (or is it?) of falling for RPD, she does so absolutely, and hers must have been the last generation to fall in love without hope in such an unproductive way. After the war the species no longer found it biologically useful, and indeed it was not useful to Annie. Love without hope grows in its own atmosphere, and should encourage the imagination, but Annie's grew narrower. As is evident in this acute passage, and in virtually every other in Human Voices, Fitzgerald can pivot from sorrow to humor by way of pessimism and desire and then back again. If you so much as blink you'll miss one of the book's key turns or unexpected pleasures. No matter. Penelope Fitzgerald's human comedy always rewards rereading. --Kerry FriedWhen 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."
|Number of Pages:||144|
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