What if Winston Churchill had not become British Prime Minister in 1940? His appointment turned on a small number of face to face conversations involving a handful of people. That makes it an eminently plausible jumping-off point for an alternative history in which Halifax becomes PM instead, and subsequently signs a peace treaty with Germany.
C.J. Sansom’s spy thriller set in 1952 starts then with a decent premise for its alternative history setting, yet later has problems of plausibility. Choosing my words carefully so as not to give away any spoilers, the big secret which the British resistance to the country’s pro-Nazi regime battles to protect is itself plausible, but the method chosen to protect it – a highly convoluted set of events when one simple death would also have done the trick – isn’t.
(Some other reviewers have questioned how well the secret itself works, but given that in real life there were people who did know, people who didn’t know it and people who didn’t but later did know it, I think it’s fair to judge by the secret’s impact in real life that it is a plausible one to treat as being vital in the book too. I suspect those criticising the secret under-estimate just how important its parallel was in real life. The problem, however, is the way the secret is handled.)
The other question mark hanging over the book is its very slow pace. In itself, that’s not a problem, especially if you know enough about real events and locations to be able to savour the imaginary details such as Herbert Morrison’s career as Labour Party leader, what Enoch Powell got up to with India and how Senate House became the Nazi embassy in London. However, much of exposition is done via lengthy, clunky dialogue between the characters.
Yet none of that stopped me reading all the way through, especially savouring the dilemmas individuals face when their government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. At what point do you say ‘enough’ – and what do you then do?
That makes me recommend the book – especially if you know enough about the real historical figures to be able to enjoy the subtle twists C.J. Sansom makes to their fictional careers.
As Sansom himself says in the book, “Robert Harris’s Fatherland [is] for me the best alternative history novel ever written”. But even close to as enjoyable as that is still a might achievement.
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