Human Voices

“[…] they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

I’ve been trying to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s works in order, and so far I think Human Voices is my favorite for the emotional impact of the setting. I know I’m far from alone in being fascinated with WWII England.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

This slim novel describes the day-to-day functioning of employees at the BBC Broadcasting House in London during 1940. Some deal with relationships and others with identity, but all are set against the background of an organization struggling to remain hopeful while bringing the daily truth and preserving history in the making.

Like Offshore, the novel draws on her personal experiences. Ms. Fitzgerald worked at the BBC herself during the war years, allowing her an intimate knowledge of details such as the volume changes of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic making it a favorite testing record for sound engineers. We also get the uncertainty of a country facing war and bracing for the invasion it believed was imminent. She paints the situation with a range of emotions from pathos to humor as the characters face what lies ahead. Here, for example, the employees all receive Red Cross training:

“As soon as he decently could, the doctor passed on to practical work, asking them to envisage the scene after a general attack from the air, but to assume, for the sake of convenience, that all the casualties were broken bones.”

Human Voices is similar to its Booker Prize-winning predecessor in many other ways as well. The novel revolves around a cast rather than a specific main character, though some receive more attention than others. The plot is comprised of small incidents, almost vignettes, rather than any sort of overarching storyline. When the opposite is true of the ending and everything seems to happen it seems almost meant for shock value, as if Ms. Fitzgerald was unsure of how to end the story otherwise.

Her next book, At Freddie’s, was the last to have autobiographical elements, but though her novels are quick reads I want to spread them out in order to savor them more.

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Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald. I find her books very appealing, especially the premise of this one. It […]


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