The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein

“Do I look like a fool-fool country gal? Is that because I’m only fifteen? Or because I’ve left school without finishing? Because I’m not doing a skilled job? Or is it just because I’m from Jamaica? (Louisa in The Enigma Game)

I knew The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein (Bloomsbury, 2020) was going to be very good but I didn’t expect to be so completely engrossed and invested in this thrilling World War 2 tale. The storytelling and characterisation are original and excellent throughout.

There is innovative exploration of gender, racism, bigotry, power and grief; there are multiple narrators; and two of the standout major characters include Louisa, a fifteen-year-old girl from Jamaica and an elderly woman.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Elizabeth.

Thank you for inviting me, and for showcasing The Enigma Game!

Which literary award or recognition has meant the most to you, and why?

Probably having Rose Under Fire being chosen as the One Book, One Community read across six different counties and over ninety libraries in Pennsylvania, USA, in the spring of 2017. As an author, it was a tremendous honour – the programme purchased 3000 copies of the book for their libraries, brought me to the area for a series of talks and paid me an honorarium, and held an astonishing gala at a local airfield with displays and people in costume relating to the book. There were also some wonderful library events inspired by the book, including dramatic readings and performances. For me personally, the wonderful thing about these events were that they all occurred in and around my hometown and the area where I grew up – the event organizers arranged for me to stay in an inn which happened to be – unknown to them – the house where my great-great-great-grandfather lived for many years! (The heroine of Rose Under Fire is also from the same area, and some of the readers I spoke to had a hard time separating me from Rose.) I also had a number of old family friends turn up at the associated events. It was truly the most wonderful week of my literary life.

(It does sound like a wonderful experience.)

You are based in Scotland, where The Enigma Game is set. What quality about Scotland or its people, is still recognisable from the time of your novel to the present?

The Enigma Game is my second book set in Scotland, and I really love fictionally celebrating the place where I live. I think that the landscape is still very recognisable (although I made up the village of Windyedge!) – there are still local buses and trains, and when I moved here there were still several active RAF airbases around. But part of the reason I write about Scotland is to celebrate the things that are vanishing – the local pub where the villagers gather, the Traveller way of life, the thatched seaside cottages and box beds that only exist today as museum pieces.

One thing that I love about Scotland is that part of its heritage from World War II was to establish a firm relationship with other European nations, such as Norway and Poland. Those relationships are still vibrant today. In the small city where I live, there are Polish war graves in our local cemetery that date to the 1940s; but there are also Polish delis and businesses thriving here in the present day.

What is the significance of your title, The Enigma Game?

The book’s plot revolves around a stolen German coding machine known by its brand name, “Enigma”, as the young people in the story attempt to use it for their own ends. “Enigma” is an intriguing word all by itself and I wanted to put it in the title, and although I also considered things like “plot” and “affair” for the other part of the title, I decided on “game” because it implies both strategy and teamwork.

The Enigma Game is generating extremely positive responses from readers. What different slant have you brought to a WW2 tale?

The character Louisa is half Jamaican and half English, and I think it’s my original idea to have her interacting with a Royal Air Force bomber squadron; but I believe that what’s really appealing about the book is that there are so many different kinds of characters, old and young, foreign and familiar, who are working together. I wanted to show how varied the population of the British home front was during wartime! I also feel that the inner life of a bomber squadron, while maybe commonplace in war movies and adult thrillers, is under-represented for teen audiences. It really blew my mind, during the research, how young the Royal Air Force aircrews were.

The Enigma Game is your most recently published novel. How has your style changed from your previous books here?

I’ve used alternating narrators before (Black Dove, White Raven), but this is the first book in which I’ve used three different narrators, and in which I’ve tried to have those three voices tell a linear story. I found, as I was writing, that having three narrators made it very easy to introduce narrative tension – you could leave one character dangling over a cliff and pick up the story with another character while you waited to find out what happened to the first! Getting the three different voices right was a challenge, but I also enjoyed allowing them to “interact” with each other in rapid fire when describing the same event – exactly the way people talk when they’re telling a story together.

I know it’s a difficult question, but how do you think you’ve achieved the feat of making your story so compelling?

I don’t do it alone! I have a team of editors pointing out to me when the story starts to drag, and they make me fix it!

Seriously, I often tell aspiring writers that the best thing they can do is to write about something they’re passionate about. I believe that the author’s excitement and interest in a subject helps to generate the reader’s interest. So my own fascination with these young pilots, codebreakers and rulebreakers probably shines through.

Which characters in The Enigma Game have you written about in previous books?

Jamie (the bomber pilot) and Ellen (the military driver) both appear in The Pearl Thief; Jamie and “Miss Lind” both appear in Code Name Verity. The Enigma Game takes place a couple of years before Code Name Verity, which refers very vaguely to the events of The Enigma Game. Writing The Enigma Game gave me a chance to explore Jamie’s backstory in greater detail.

Which character from The Enigma Game are you keen to write about further?

I’d love to find out what happens to Louisa later on in the war, as she becomes old enough to serve in the military. And I’d also love to find out what happens to the music-loving German pilot and resistance agent, Felix Baer!

Jane, Johanna von Arnim, is an important and beguiling major character in the novel. Why have you crafted a character in a novel for teen readers as an elderly German woman?

Why did you choose not to give her a voice as a narrator?

Part of my original inspiration for The Enigma Game was wanting to write about the relationship between a young person and an old person. Making the old woman German added a number of different levels of conflict to the story. She’s a potential enemy, she has an intriguing past, and her situation gave me a chance to touch on the British alien internment camps, which have their own fascinating history. I didn’t give Jane a voice as a narrator because I wanted the young people to claim the story. But also, not being able to “see” inside Jane’s head keeps her a little bit mysterious and an outsider.

How have you explored racism in an unusual way in the novel?

Ironically, I don’t think I set out to explore racism when I made up Louisa. I wanted her to be Jamaican because I used to live in Jamaica, and I wanted to be able to draw on my own past in creating hers. But I did very consciously want to contrast Louisa’s “outsider” identity with Jane’s – Louisa is British, Jane is German, but Louisa can’t hide her “alien” identity and Jane can. There’s also Ellen, who looks and sounds like a native Scot, but who as a Traveller is despised by the local Scottish population. I suppose that the unusual take The Enigma Game gives is to compare so many different types of prejudice – of nationality, of age, of gender, of skin colour. Everybody in the novel has preconceptions about everybody else, and part of their interior journey is to revise their ideas about other people.

How do you write with such authority and authenticity about this time in history?

I don’t know where my authority and authenticity come from! A superpower, maybe?! I have done a LOT of research over the years, and I guess that is where I get the authority. But the authenticity probably comes from being empathetic, from being fascinated with the generations before mine – I was raised by my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1916. My high school French teacher was a resistance agent in France in her teens. And I am a good mimic. I have read a lot of memoirs and autobiographical works. There is a place in my head where I am just constantly trying to imagine what it was like to live back then.

You must have done so much research for The Enigma Game. What was the most surprising information that you incorporated into the novel? What did you leave out that you would have liked to include?

The incident that really stuck with me the most, and which I adapted to include in the novel, happened to the British servicewoman Lilian Bader, who like Louisa (but in real life) was the daughter of an English mother and a West Indian father. She was accused of being a Nazi by a group of evacuee children who had never seen a black person – or a German.

I did a LOT of research into the British alien internment camps, particularly on the Isle of Man, and wouldn’t have minded expanding on some of the stories of the German citizens living in Britain who ended up there during the war. Perhaps the most intriguing story I couldn’t include was about a group of aliens who were shipped to Australia as prisoners, surviving a torpedo attack and enduring harrowing conditions on the way. Another thing that I was amazed by was the complicated postal system set up via neutral Portugal for British people who wanted to send letters to family in Nazi-occupied countries!

In your novel, why was the 648 Squadron B-Flight flying Blenheims, patched-up planes that couldn’t match the speed of the German craft? It seemed to give the Allies such a disadvantage, let alone causing greater risk to their lives and reduced ability to tackle the German military?

Well, I didn’t make up the Blenheims; I only told their tragic and forgotten story. The Royal Air Force used them because they were plentiful, and at the beginning of the war the military really had to make do with what was available – the Allies were at a disadvantage, and had to fight back with what they had. They had more Blenheims than any other aircraft at the beginning of the war. No one was as surprised as the Germans when the Battle of Britain was won by the British!

I should add that it wasn’t unusual for bomber aircraft to be slower and less manoeuvrable than fighter aircraft – depending on the mission, bombers might have a fighter escort to protect them (as does Jamie’s squadron occasionally in The Enigma Game).

The Blenheims were continually being modified throughout the war. Bear in mind that they weren’t supposed to be tangling with German fighter aircraft – they were supposed to be escorting British shipping or bombing German shipping. Not long after The Enigma Game takes place, Blenheims were fitted with early radar and were used on reconnaissance flights. An upgraded, bigger version of the Blenheim, the Beaufort, proved to be a much more effective night fighter.

It is appealing to Australian readers that some of your pilots are Australian. Could you describe how they differ from the other pilots?

While I was working on the book, I got a letter from a fan requesting me to include Australians if I ever wrote about bomber pilots – so I did! Jamie’s squadron is a pretty mixed bunch – there is also a Welshman, a Pole, and an American among the nine airmen of Pimms Section. I put the three fictional Australians as aircrew together because they’d all been at school together – they are the youngest members of Jamie’s team. This is their first posting, and they’re less battle-hardened than the other flight crew – they are anxious for action as schoolboys are anxious for action, and both their pilot and their air gunner tend to jump in at the deep end, without thinking ahead. I don’t really think of these differences being caused by their being Australian so much as their being inexperienced! But they’re definitely a close-knit and exuberant trio.

I loved reading Biggles as a girl, partly because my father loved it but also because of its thrilling wartime air adventures. I know that Biggles is out of favour because of its racist content and other problematic issues, but has it influenced your work in any way? If so, how?

There was a Biggles book floating around in our house in Jamaica which I read VERY early on, at the age of seven or eight (it was Biggles Goes On Board). I couldn’t begin to tell you where it came from, as my parents were both American! I don’t remember it enough to say that it influenced my work, but I loved that kind of adventure. I lapped up early Buck Rogers comic books (when he first appeared, in 1929, he flew bi-planes – he’d been a World War I pilot). And as a teenager I adored K.M. Peyton’s Flambards trilogy, and the stories of early flight in those books. So that type of story really did influence me, and I love paying tribute to the air adventures they offered to young readers.

(Oh, I loved Flambards as well.)

What symbol is integral to your story?

The coins that the airmen leave the wooden beam above the bar of the pub where they go when they’re off duty. They are based on a real airmen’s tradition from World War II. For a while I wore a sixpence on a chain around my neck while I was writing this book; I gave sixpences to my first readers. For the young pilots about to go on a mission, those coins were a good luck charm, a symbol of hope that they’d be able to come back to the pub one day and buy themselves a drink. If they didn’t make it back after a mission, those coins became their memorial.

Music is a pivotal part of the story. Why have you featured Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture?

I first noticed it in a sequence in the film The Rise and Fall of Colonel Blimp, which I was watching while I was doing research for my book Code Name Verity. I came to associate the music very strongly with Code Name Verity, and when I sat down to write The Enigma Game, it was the first theme that came to my mind. I love it because it is a tribute to Scotland written by a German composer, but I hadn’t realized until I dug a little deeper that Mendelssohn was banned by the Nazis for being Jewish. The combination seemed perfect for this book.

What are you writing now or next?

I am writing another book about young people in the air, this time with a female pilot as the heroine, and set in Europe in the 1930s. It’s been fun to let my characters fly in peacetime for a change!

I hope that your readers enjoy The Enigma Game, and that it may lead them to check out some of my previous books! Thank you for these wonderful questions!

As readers, we become completely invested in the characters in The Enigma Game, and caught up in the suspenseful and intriguing events of this episode in WW2.

Thank you very much for your generous and insightful responses, Elizabeth and all the very best with The Enigma Game and your other books.

Elizabeth Wein’s website

The Enigma Game at Bloomsbury 

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