C J Sansom has become well-known for his “Matthew Shardlake” series of historical fiction set in 16th century England. He also has a talent for writing novels set in the last century, with Winter in Madrid being a fine novel by anyone’s standards. For his latest novel, Dominion, Sansom has returned to the mid-twentieth century to write an “alternative history” novel in which Britain surrendered to Germany soon after the Dunkirk retreat.
We have a scenario in which Winston Churchill lost his battle with those who wished to appease Germany whereupon Germany suddenly invaded Denmark and Norway. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Lord Halifax, and the Germans attacked the Low Countries and France. The British retreated from Dunkirk and and then France and Britain sued for an armistice.
A treaty was signed, between Germany, France and Britain which left Britain intact, but minus an air-force. The Germans were allowed to take over the Isle of Wight and establish a military base there. Britain had the humiliation of seeing a powerful and fortified German Embassy established in London with Gestapo officers in residence. The Battle of Britain and the Blitz were avoided and friendly relations were established with the German government, strongly supported by the press and the BBC.
Germany’s Eastern Front continues to be a running sore and as the book opens in 1952. Germany has won Moscow and huge swathes of Russian territory but is unable to get the upper hand with both sides continuing to make devastating losses. The Crimea on the other hand is now German territory and has been settled with German farmers, the original occupants having vanished from the face of the earth.
British Jews have been allowed to stay in their homes but now have to wear lapel badges. The rest of Europe’s Jews have been dealt and already the concentration camps of the holocaust are being decommissioned.
With a scenario like this, there is plenty of scope for a riveting novel. As the book opens we learn that Winston Churchill, now in his 80s is leading a resistance movement comprising communists, trade-unionists (those who have not yet been shot!), liberals of all persuasions and large numbers of people who are disgusted with that the government has done.
The book focuses on David and his wife Sarah who live a relatively comfortable life in North London. David works as a Civil Servant in the Dominions Office and deals with those Australia, Canada, South Africa and other Empire nations. He has a terrible secret however – his mother was Jewish, meaning that he himself is a Jew. His father however went out of his way to suppress this fact but it only seems a matter of time before the truth of his origins will come out.
David is slowly inveigled into taking part in Resistance activities by making photographs of important secret documents at Whitehall office. This leads him into the other major thread in the first half of the book – an old university friend, Frank, is now languishing in a mental hospital having nearly killed his brother, an American émigré scientist who has secret knowledge about new nuclear weapons. Soon David is being approached by the Resistance to make contact with Frank to try to find our how much he knows about the new weapons, not knowing that the Gestapo are also interested in Frank for their own purposes.
C J Sansom has filled the book with detail about this new Britain, a nation which is not far off being a puppet state under German masters. The population is divided with many approving of the new regime and its ability to bring a sort of peace to a troubled Europe. The Church of England has split in two with an official wing, almost an agent of the state and a new confessing church who protest about the new measures. The unemployed are now in agricultural work-camps and it only seems to be a matter of time before the Jews are rounded up and shipped off to follow the fate of their mainland European cousins.
I found this to be a fascinating read. My only complaint being that it is possible a little too lengthy at 450 pages. Sometimes I felt that a bit of editing wouldn’t have come amiss, although I appreciate the care which Sansom took to fully develop his themes and to make sure that al the loose ends were tied up. It must be a rare skill to manage a narrative as complex as this one, while at the same time providing so much detail about the barely-recognisable Britain: a grey 1950s vassal state, locked in low-level poverty and under-development, humiliated by treacherous leaders and suffering from an ever-increasing climate of fear. I found it to be a wholly believable world and as good a “what might have been” story as any.
This book would appeal to anyone who enjoys political thrillers, anyone with an interest in alternative histories but also by anyone who enjoys a meaty, entertaining read by a master story-teller. I’d give it four out of five stars, the missing star being because I felt it would have been a better book had it been 250 pages rather than 450 pages. Many other readers however seem not to have been bothered by the books length so perhaps I was being an impatient reader on this occasion.
For sharper, more tightly-written novels based on the intrigues and politicking of the World War 2 era and its aftermath I would recommend the latest books by Alan Furst (Mission to Paris) or Philip Kerr (Prague Fatale).