In 1930s London, by pure chance, Judy Morgan meets Hedwig Kiesler. Judy Morgan has just finished her studies of Physics at Cambridge University. Hedwig Kiesler has just left her beloved home in Austria to escape from her ex-husband. Hedwig dreams of becoming a famous Hollywood actress; Judy dreams of using science to change the world for the better.
Two completely different women but with two things in common: big dreams and a passion for inventions. Whilst listening to a tour about radiation in South Kensington, the two meet and thus ensues a fast friendship. When the world is thrust into the perils of war, Judy and Hedwig’s worlds continue to collide and their friendship is tested. Hedwig becomes the iconic Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr, whilst continuing to pursue her love of inventions. Judy works for the Cavendish Laboratory, the department of Physics at Cambridge, where she works tirelessly on her scientific projects, namely the invention of the ‘chaff’ (a radar countermeasure technique). In trying to end the war, both women find themselves on devastating paths that will impact their friendship, and the outcome of the war.
Suzanne Kelman has not only created a tragic yet captivating story, but she has also honoured two incredible women and their scientific achievements through a story about friendship. When the Nightingale Sings is based on the true stories of Hollywood actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr, and scientist Joan Curran (written as the fictious character of Judy Morgan). Kelman’s novel brings to life two women whose lives were completely undervalued because of the fact that they were women. It did not matter that Joan Curran went to Cambridge or that Hedy Lamarr had ingenious ideas. They were invisible because of their gender. Many people may not know that Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s signal hopping invention became the foundation for Bluetooth and WiFi innovation. Nor may they realise that Joan Curran’s invention of the ‘chaff’ saved countless lives among the Allied bomber crews.
Reading about World War Two through the prism of Judy and Hedy’s perspectives was nothing short of fascinating. The novel is structured through alternating chapters about the two protagonists and this gives readers a great insight into the characters. It was also pleasing to see that the writing on Hedy Lamarr did not just merely focus on her marriages. Her worries, passions, fears and anxieties are all brought to the forefront of her story. She was not just the beautiful face but an excited intellectual with a passion for innovation. Another storyline that the reader will feel deeply invested in is the story of Judy Morgan and Tom Jenkins. Reading about their relationship blossoming, developing and struggling within the chaos of this time period will undoubtably move you.
When the Nightingale Sings is a fast-moving yet intricate novel that pays a beautiful tribute to these incredible women. Kelman is a gripping writer who will have you laughing one moment and crying the next: a true master of her craft.