I have always enjoyed C.J. Sansom’s writing – we’ve bought the whole Matthew Shardlake series – read my review of Revelation here. But this alternate historical thriller is something of a departure for Sansom – would I enjoy it as much as his tales of Tudor crime and his bleak but very accomplished Winter in Madrid?
Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.
Civil servant David Fitzgerald has been passing on government secrets after the tragic death of his son. While his wife Sarah is increasingly suspicious of the late nights and week-end stints in the office. But as events sweep this middle-class couple up into the political mincing machine, they cross paths with Gestapo Sturmbannfűhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant and implacable hunter of men…
Which is more or less the blurb – except for the spoilers. What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. With much of the elderly industrial infrastructure still in place, the mines are still in the hands of individual owners who are running them into the ground. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.
However skilful the scene setting is, even in an alternate history thriller, the meat of the book is the plot and characters. Does Sansom’s tale at the heart of his fog-swathed landscape deliver the goods? Absolutely. David Fitzgerald is utterly convincing as a ‘small man’ who feels driven to try and do something against the present regime, while Sarah, his wife, still grieving for her dead son, is only too aware of his growing detachment. Sansom shows how corrosive lies can be to a relationship – even if it is for the best of reasons.
And when hapless Frank Muncaster, physically frail misfit, is stranded in a mental hospital and becomes the nexus of the story, I was reminded of Sansom’s other physically compromised protagonist. Both Frank and Matthew Shardlake are defined by other people’s reaction towards them from early childhood, despite their cleverness. However Frank is more compromised as his strangeness leaves him vulnerable in a world where a masculine ideal is increasingly modelled on Hitler’s Youth.
The final climax to the story is both enthralling and shocking – and has left me musing on his disturbing, unsettling tale. Because in the end, you are forced to wonder how you would react if you were faced with the same circumstances. And the truth is, of course, you don’t ever really know until you find yourself in that situation. I have read some reviews that have grumbled about the length of this book – but despite my intolerance for overwritten, wordy tomes the size and weight of a breezeblock, I have no problem with the length of Dominion. This complex, layered world is worth the effort.