” As the days turned to weeks, everyone in London learned to live with it. The learned to live with the dread an the fear . . . But they could go on. They had to. They all went to work, ate their meals, spoke to one another in the shops, went on as though they were people in one of those classic British plays—always polite, terribly formal, occasionally stiff. It was almost comical sometimes. ” (Ch.13, p.149)
In May 1940, Winston Churchill just became the Prime Minister of England. Unlike his predecessor, Churchill takes on an aggressive disposition on going to war against the Nazis. It is against this historical backdrop—a strange moment in time and a limbo-like state when horror was fast approaching but barbarity had yet to descend—that MacNeal sets her novel. With the Nazis marching across France, Holland, and Belgium and threatening the island, England is also hemmed in by IRA terrorists, who have coordinated bombings in London.
Learning all the sick and twisted details of the war, Maggie was starting to hate, hate with a ferocity she never knew she had within her. Could I kill a Nazi? she thought. Before, she would have said no. Or maybe—but only if she was in a kill-or-be-killed situation. But now she felt she could do it easily, with a song in her heart if it meant getting even. (Ch.7, p.78)
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is the story of Maggie Hope, a British citizen who was raised by her aunt, a lesbian academic, in America. She graduated t the top of her class at Wellesley but put off doctorate study in mathematics in order to handle a sale of her late grandmother’s house in London. Possessed all the skills of the fine minds in British intelligence, her gender however only placed her to be a secretary in Churchill’s typist room in the basement of 10 Downing. She is the replacement of a secretary who was murdered, and the truth of that dubious atrocity was in conjunction with the novel’s more intricate, underlying plot later.
Women are slowly but surely making strides—the vote, higher education, laws that protect our money and property. But this treatment of women—middle- and upper-class women—as though we’re children or goddesses or precious objets d’art—well, that’s a kind of slavery. (Ch.10, p.120)
Maggie’s past is revealed in a natural arc as the story takes on different fronts with intricate connection that is not immediately obvious. War-time England comes alive under MacNeal’s pen. Beneath the thin veneer of civility and pleasantries, in spite of the social norms of the ballets, the dancing and the theater, the nation is bracing for the worst. The IRA sees Nazi collaboration as a means for Irish freedom and retaliation. The government is aware of Maggie’s possible motive to take up work with the Prime Minister. The MI-5 has IRA and German spies under surveillance. With the impending political and military chaos, MacNeal never loses sight of her heroine, whose parents perished in a car accident shortly after she was born. As the malicious plots against London begins to unravel, enemy infiltrated, Maggie’s expertise in mathematics, language, and codes has not only proved her talent, it has also saved the life of many and in London. An innocent advert that appeared on the paper didn’t escape her keen eyes and acumen. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a compelling novel that blends intrigue and espionage as MacNeal skillfully weaves historical facts into fictional plot and the lively dialogue.
374 pp. Bantam. Trade Paper. [Read/
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