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Book Review: HUMAN VOICES (by Penelope Fitzgerald) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald, distributed in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York 10003. 143 pages. $12, paperback.

The first few lines of Penelope Fitzgerald's HUMAN VOICES introduce readers to the orderly chaos of BBC offices in London during the air raids of World War Two. Confronted with this fictional world of official acronyms and bustling war-time toils, it is easy for the reader to fall quickly into pace with the flurry of activity within the Broadcasting House's so-called Seraglio of charming and troubled employees.

The setting provides a vivid sense of the urgency of the war, as reporters rush in and out of Broadcasting House and bombs shatter buildings as well as lives throughout London. Barracks are created within the veritable war-ship that is the BBC, and from among the bunks in the concert hall emerges a portrait of the personal difficulties and victories of the BBC staff.

The struggles that Fitzgerald presents in this hectic and dryly comedic novel exist on both a personal and professional level; while the employees of the Department of Recorded Programmes fight to maintain the department's position within the BBC and broadcast a true and accurate account of the war to its listeners, love blossoms between colleagues, and the balance of power between the Director of Programme Planning and the Recorded Programmes Director threatens to be upset at any moment. Woven into this personal drama are issues of what the listeners will hear and how they will hear it, and the simple joys of music and fresh fruits–which attain the status of jewels in a time of rations, shortages, and fear.

Intriguing and eerily lifelike characters pop in and out of the story at crucial moments, setting precarious situations further on edge. Bloody brawls, pregnant women, and young men anxious to serve their countries are not overlooked in this highly readable book. Unpredictable and riveting, Fitzgerald's work reveals a knowledge of the inner workings of the BBC and human nature while it encompasses a wide range of tones and situations that come together to create a highly moving and enchanting piece.

Fitzgerald is also the author of The Blue Flower, winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award for fiction, and Offshore, winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.

Kristin Sopronyi

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