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From Publishers Weekly
Now that Fitzgerald has widened her audience hereABlue Flower was published to rave reviews and the 1997 NBCC fiction awardAHoughton Mifflin is releasing her early novels in paperback. This gracefully controlled and neatly inlaid chronicle of Britain during WWII, published in England in 1980, reflects the author's wartime experiences with the BBC. The beleaguered broadcasters she portrays have chosen truth over consolation; nevertheless they must try to keep their listeners and themselves from despair as the threat of a German invasion mounts and parachute bombs pit the streets. Yet Sam Brooks, RPD (Recorded Programmes Director), lives in a fantasy world of wax discs and nubile women. When he is not trying desperately to capture the sounds of England (spending hundreds of hours and pounds recording the creak of a country church door), Brooks is crying on the shoulder of one or another of his RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants), whose "firmness, and roundness, and readiness to be pleased" give him strength. His seraglio comprises Vi Simmons, cheery, practical, with a man at sea who means to marry her; part-French, pregnant, Lise Bernard, abandoned by her beau; Della, tarty, velvet-voiced, bound for defection to the drama department; and the latecomer, Annie Asra, whose uncompromising candor and fragile susceptibility to emotion reverberates as the real voice of Fitzgerald's book. Annie's fate is to fall in love with Brooks, whom she sees clearly as "a middle-aged man who said the same thing to all the girls" and who is, above all, self-centered, obsessed with his work and oblivious to what goes on around him. Fitzgerald conveys the peculiar intimacy and secrecy of wartime: people disappear from this strange little world very easily and almost without comment, yet, besieged as they are by the fear that England will soon go the way of occupied France, they cling to each other fiercely. Hopelessness is in the air, but, as the BBC employees stay up all night on the late shift, so are strains of Debussy, blunt confessions, murmured condolences and the wails of a baby born in the makeshift bunk room. Fitzgerald's clipped, unsentimental and yet sympathetic irony perfectly describes the moment when the British stiff upper lip begins to tremble in the face of overwhelming historical and emotional events.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Library Journal
Fitzgerald follows The Blue Flower (LJ 3/1/97; 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award winner) with another entertaining short novel. This time her setting is 1940 at BBC headquarters in London, where the beleaguered Department of Recorded Programmes attempts to get news and music on the air amid German bombing attacks and internal chaos. War has transformed the BBC's famed London concert hall into a dorm, Red Cross training interrupts programming schedules, mix-ups are rife, and tempers are short. Particularly stressed are the teenage Junior Temporary Assistants, responsible for more than 5000 recordings weekly and struggling with personal problems inflamed by the war. Their should-be mentors, two self-absorbed departmental directors, are preoccupied with their own eccentricities and can scarcely deal with office glitches, much less the tragicomic complications arising when Annie, an intern of 16, falls in love with one of them. Fitzgerald, drawing on her own youthful employment at the BBC, brings time, place, and characters to life in a book remarkable for its dexterous and appealing prose. Recommended.AStarr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, VA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize in England for her 1978 novel "Offshore," but her reputation was slower to develop in this country. Over the past dozen years, her elegant, understated novels have won enthusiastic reviews and a small but appreciative audience, which has sufficed to keep them tenaciously in print. When "The Blue Flower" won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year, however, Fitzgerald suddenly became a popular success. Heartened by this, Houghton Mifflin has been reissuing several of her earlier novels (in paperback only, unfortunately), and "Human Voices," originally published in 1980, now appears in this country for the first time.
Set in the summer of 1940, when England was undergoing daily bombardment and German invasion seemed imminent, the novel focuses on the BBC's Broadcasting House, which produced the Home News six times a day even as bombs fell over London. While civilians cope with adversity through self-denial and recycling ("The nation defended itself by counting large numbers of small things into separate containers"), the workers at BH deal with anxiety, depression, and worry over loved ones as they fulfill their schedule of news and features.
This sounds like a recipe for a conventional novel about British determination and pluck, but Fitzgerald is in fact doing something more interesting. She notes that Broadcasting House followed a policy of offering truth rather than propaganda -- "Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective" -- but then adds: "Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness." The major theme of Fitzgerald's fiction, the inadvisability of trying to avoid hurtful truths, can be glimpsed in these two sentences.
This sounds pretty earnest, but "Human Voices" is in fact a deft and very funny novel, astute and sharply observed -- even rather consoling. The beleaguered BBC, operating like "a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from," converts its concert-hall into a dormitory for the day when London is invaded and employees seal themselves into the building. As things turn out, the most action the space sees happens the evening when a young assistant crawls into a dark cubicle and goes into labor.
The cast revolves around two middle-aged and unhappy men: Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. (As though to convey the institution's sometimes irritating fussiness, the author usually refers to them simply as RPD and DPP.) With the assistance of a staff of surprisingly understanding teenaged assistants (one of them, finding a letter from her boyfriend largely blacked-out by the censor, thinks: "What a job having to go through other people's personal letters . . . they must feel uncomfortable, you had to pity them"), they stoically confront the various crises that beset the Corporation, such as a French general who has just escaped his collapsing country, and whose request to broadcast an urgent message for the British people the BBC unwisely grants.
Although much of the novel deals with the technical problems involved in recording "human voices," the title is an obvious allusion to Eliot's Prufrock, whom both RPD and DPP resemble. One of them is finally wakened by Eliot's "human voices," but does not (like Prufrock) drown; the other's case is more equivocal.
At times Fitzgerald shows a slightly unsure hand, and readers of her later novels (especially "The Gate of Angels," which shares some features with her present novel) will see where she has elsewhere handled matters a bit more adroitly. This is the only real criticism one can make of the novel, and it is hard to fault a writer for having improved with time. Compact and concise, "Human Voices" is a small gem, and should please new readers almost as much those already familiar with her work.
But if to you, any good novel must have "character development" or a gripping plot, perhaps you should go elsewhere. (Hey, come to think of it, the character development in this novel is wonderful, especially given how short it is. Oh and the plot, though full of low human foibles and often trivial struggle does take place against the backdrop of the last century's supreme struggle between good and evil. And the funny folks depicted apparently bear some resemblance to those who were actually in charge of getting this story out to the world.
While reading, I started to laugh whenever an official of any sort was introduced, because they were almost instantly reduced to an absurd abbreviated title (RPD, DPP, and the truly absurd ADDG). Friends, I believe this is a joke. At some point, these people's identities have been subsumed by their occupational roles. They are more RPD and DPP than they are "Sam" and "Jeffrey".
One measure of a book for me is how preoccupied by it was I (or not) in the days after I finished it. This one ran on and on in my head. for days and days. I can't wait to read more Fitzgerald.