Monday 28 March 2022

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR by Amy Butler Greenfield


"Friedman’s was an inspiring life which is wonderfully served by this impressive biography."

Sheena Wilkinson
writes contemporary and historical fiction for adults and children. Her most recent novel, Hope against Hope, was shortlisted for the KPMG Children's Books Ireland awards and the Irish Book Awards.

From the sweeping epics of the historical fantasy Chantress series, to the delightful Ra the Mighty books about Pharoah’s most spoiled cat, to her 2005 non-fiction A Perfect Red, the story of the ‘mad race’ for the dye cochineal to make the true prized red of ‘the most desirable colour on earth’, Amy Butler Greenfield has to be one of the most versatile and original writers working today. When I hear the welcome news that a new book is imminent, I can’t guess what it will be but I have every confidence in how it will be – beautifully written, robustly researched and above all, fascinating.

So it is with her most recent book, The Woman All Spies Fear, a biography of the code breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman. I must admit that I knew nothing about the celebrated American cryptologist but I found this account of her life and career completely engaging.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980) was an ambitious, bright young woman, but there was little in her early life in Indiana to predict her extraordinary career. As Greenfield says: ‘Elizebeth did not have an easy start in life. Yet she rose to become one of the most formidable code breakers in the world, the scourge of gangsters and spies. How did she do it? Ambition and grit played a part, but she needed opportunity too.’ Greenfield’s account of how Freidman seized those opportunities is one of the most readable biographies I have encountered.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, Greenfield shares the story of how she first made the acquaintance of Friedman in a 1937 Reader’s Digest magazine found in the attic of her childhood home. ‘Even back then she amazed me. As I’ve uncovered more of her story, I’ve only become more impressed.’ Writing a biography must be rather like cracking a code, and in fact Greenfield often uses such imagery to describe the process of uncovering the complex layers of her subject’s long life. It’s clear the book involved a huge amount of research, fact-finding and interpretation but it wears its research lightly and reads like a novel. A novel, moreover, full of twists and reversals of fortune, strange and unforgettable characters and places. Greenfield tells Friedman’s story with the novelist’s love of storytelling so that the prose gallops along at a brisk pace, with every chapter making me want to read on as Friedman’s extraordinary life unfolds.

Its scope, like her long life, is huge: Elizebeth and her Russian-born Jewish husband, William, met while involved in an eccentric – and doomed – project aiming to decrypt secret messages in Shakespeare’s First Folio. They could have had little idea that their skills and talent would lead to their influencing some of the most important outcomes of twentieth century history, including both world wars. They would crack the codes of spies, gangsters and warmongers all over the world, from China to South America to Nazi Germany. Greenfield’s description of how an Enigma machine works was, for this particular non-technically-minded reader, accessible and clear.

Not only does The Woman All Spies Fear deal with the public aspects of Elizebeth’s life and work; it also examines the realities of being a working mother at a time when this was by no means widely accepted. For me, this was the most interesting aspect – the juxtaposition of history-making code-breaking with the Friedmans’ often difficult domestic life. Many of history’s remarkable women had no choice but to sacrifice family life; Friedman had both, but not without challenges.

One of the things I loved about the book was the ‘Code Break’ sections throughout, explaining some of the codes the Friedmans cracked. At first I prided myself on being able to crack these, but Greenfield lulled me into a false sense of security – later codes were much too tough! But, as with her description of Enigma, Greenfield outlined them in an accessible way which smarter readers than I will appreciate.

The Woman All Spies Fear is a beautifully-produced book, with frequent illustrations of both characters and codes. It was shortlisted in the YALSA Excellence in Non-Fiction Awards and has been optioned by a Hollywood producer. I’m not surprised: Friedman’s was an inspiring life which is wonderfully served by this impressive biography.

The Woman All Spies Fear is published by Random House.

Sheena Wilkinson's Hope Against Hope is published by Little Island.

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