Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Books I Read in September

'Dominion' by C.J. Sansom
I thoroughly enjoy 'what if?' novels so was really looking forward to 'Dominion', It is set in 1952 in a Britain that signed a peace treaty with Nazi Germany in 1940.  It starts with the popular but lazy assumption that if Lord Halifax had become Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill, Britain would have signed a peace treaty with Germany in the summer of 1940.  In the book while only the Isle of Wight is occupied, Britain has become a collaborator of Nazi Germany and the SS police forces are penetrating the country.  Rather than a immediate move to dictatorship this has been established through the 1940s so that by 1952 Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper magnate has become Prime Minister.  Sir Oswald Mosley is Home Secretary and Enoch Powell, India Secretary.  There is a political police force, the Auxiliary Police who intern and torture people.  Britain has retained its empire, but is highly restricted in with its ability to trade with the continent and what armed forces it can raise by the treaty it signed with Germany.  It is battling to hold on to India.  There is generally free movement of British with some having gone to the dominions and colonies and relative free trade with the USA which has been under Joseph Kennedy and is now moving under a more liberal government of Adlai Stevenson.

The book is not bad, but could have been a lot better.  There is always a challenge with 'what if?' history books in getting across to the reader what is different from real history.  This can even be a challenge when the real history is well known.  However, the writer has to trust the reader much more than Sansom does.  The first sections of the book are really a data dump about the society and the main characters' lives.  It would have been far better if these were 'discovered' more gradually as the book progressed.  My edition was 718 pages long, including an essay at the end, so there was more than enough room for the author to weave together the revelations rather than have the reader have it all laid on them so quickly.

The story features members of the Resistance to the collaborationist regime.  They are generally drawn from a middle class, civil service background, though they encounter foreigners and a few others from other parts of British society.  We also see the perspective of a German Gestapo agent and the British men he works with.  There is a McGuffin of a mentally disturbed man who has been told secrets about the US scientific developments by his brother on a visit from America.  This makes him a target for the Resistance, the Americans, the Germans and the collaborationist regime  However, ultimately, this aspect is rather wasted and proves not to be really well thought through.  After the data dump, the book settles down into being a thriller in which the Resistance have to secure the man and get him out of Britain before the Germans can take him.  The book is strongest in analysing how the protagonists become caught up with the Resistance and particularly how innocent people are sucked into the plot and the price they pay.

Throughout the book looks like it needed more re-drafting and editing.  Some of the developments seem illogical and Sansom or others for him needed to step back and look at the feasibility of what he reveals.  This undermines the strength he has in developing the tension of the pursuit making use of the smog of 1952 as a marker of the time and useful for racking up the jeopardy.  A weakness is the resolution of the book.  The regime change in Germany seems feasible, but the changes in the UK are less well thought through.  Most infuriating is that we do not find out the fate of  the key protagonists, minor characters are given more details of them.  There is a love triangle but we do not discover what happens to any of the three people we have followed closely in the travails which fill most of the book.  This jars when we know what happens to many of the less important characters instead.  I do not know if Sansom intends a sequel involving these people but it left the book unfinished.

Another challenge with 'what if?' history is not to let your own views about what is the 'right' outcome, not in the history, but nowadays, come out.  Sansom cannot rein in his hatred of the Scottish National Party (SNP).  He hates them in the present day but projects this hatred too much into the 1952 he portrays.  The novel features only one Scottish character and two brothers who attended a public school which happened to be in Scotland but isolated from its society could have been anywhere.  Thus, the bile which comes out about the SNP sticks out in the story and is too clearly the voice of the author.  This is worsened by the political essay he includes at the end of the book which has no relation to the novel.  It shows a lack of restraint on the part of the author and so weakens the book as a whole.

Sansom has put a lot of effort into his research and properly cites his sources.  Many things are handled well but the book is riddled with minor errors.  This do not mean the novel is useless but they do sap your belief in it when it should be creating a credible world.  I did not spot all of them; one journalist pointed out that the University of Oxford gives D.Phils and not Ph.Ds. Winston Churchill would not have been made Minister of Defence in 1940 because that ministry did not exist until 1964; he would have been War Minister.  It was only Churchill himself who created the title of Minister of Defence for the minister in the War Office and it seems unlikely Halifax would have invented exactly the same term.  These are pretty much 'train spotter' errors.  A greater one is showing people in 1952 shopping on a Sunday.  Even in my youth, twenty years later than the book is set, the only shopping you could do in Britain on a Sunday was at a newsagent until 12.30 and at petrol stations.  Yet in Sansom's book people are shopping in London as if it was 2014.

I am not clear why Sansom moved the German Embassy from its real location in Prussia House, i.e. 9 Carlton House Terrace in the St. James's district of London to Senate House, the headquarters of the University of London in Bloomsbury.  I can only think this is because that building is used to portray Nazi or Soviet or dictatorial or secret buildings in a number of productions such as the movie 'Richard III' (1995), the television series,  'Mosley' (1998) and the fourth series of 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (2004) amongst many others.  Aside from Norwich Town Hall, it is one of the only examples of 'Fascist-style' architecture in Britain.  It still as a Room 101 and is known to have been the basis for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1948); Orwell worked for the Ministry of Information which was based in the building during the Second World War.  It is clear Sansom has never been to the building as his portrayal of a panoramic view from the windows is misplaced even if all the neighbouring buildings, including the British Museum had been bombed flat.  The views are restricted by old buildings no matter which direction you look.

The greatest mistake and one which impacts on the novel more broadly, is the belief that the Germans had no easy access to uranium.  In the novel they are shown as getting it from Belgian Congo which they take over.  In reality they had free access to it from the moment they took over Bohemia-Moravia, what had been western Czechoslovakia, in March 1939.  Albert Einstein criticised the Americans for not getting as much uranium out of the region before the Germans gained control of it.  By 1944, though the Germans had not built a full-scale atomic bomb, they did at least two tests of what we now call 'dirty bombs', i.e. highly radioactive bombs but with far less explosive power than a full atomic bomb; the radiation from one test remains apparent in Germany nowadays.  The Germans are shown as not having progressed with their bomb in another eight years, despite having agents in the USA.  In our world even the USSR which had lacked the range of scientists and focus on an atomic bomb had detonated one by 1949.

This could have been an excellent book, but it needed a lot of re-working.  It needed to be shorter.  It needed the revelation of the details of the society portrayed revealed in a more measured manner.  It needed the feasibility of plot developments tested more thoroughly.  It needed Sansom to keep his politics to a blog or an article or to have written a story set in Scotland rather than the Midlands and southern England; it is not clear why he did not do that, except to make use of the smog.  It needed the story to be completed properly especially in terms of the three main protagonists.

'The Potter's Field' by Ellis Peters
This is the 18th book in the Cadfael sequence and as I have noted previously with 'The Confession of Brother Haluin' and 'The Heretic's Apprentice', by this stage of the sequence Peters was clearly looking to move beyond the restraints of Shrewsbury and its abbey.  This story is more like 'CSI: Medieval Shrewsbury' because the case is around a skeleton found in a field that has been transferred to the abbey's ownership.  Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar try to analyse who was involved in the murder and the cause primarily from the remains and where they are situated.  Various suspects arise and are dismissed and in itself this causes further suspicions.  At times, even though the bulk of her characters are male, you can feel Peters making a case for the women and how they are treated in this world.  There is an interesting tension in this book because Brother Ruald, the potter who owned the field, walked away from his wife to become a monk.  Because he was still alive she was still considered married and was not permitted to marry anyone else.  Ruald's step is portrayed in the male-dominated world as a holy one.  However, the fate of the blighted woman still in her thirties and who had an active sex life with her husband, is also shown.  Peters does not make judgements which would be anachronistic for the times, but in this story she shows how men finding their vocation could really muck up the lives of the women around them.  Almost as a balance she has a novitiate leave the order and become interested in a young woman from a neighbouring estate.  The book is brisk and a fresh departure in approach for Peters.  She will not contaminate the medieval view of how things should be, but she does lay the evidence from a woman's perspective out before the reader for them to decide whether to censure the very male-focused behaviour going on.

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