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by C.J. Sansom
Mantle, October 2012
450 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0230744168

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The year is 1952. Thirteen years have passed since Chamberlain's doomed bid for 'peace in our time' and Winston Churchill has been passed over for leadership of the Conservatives in favour of the appeaser Lord Halifax. After the disasters of Norway and France, Britain has surrendered to Germany, but the war in the east continues. At home, under the rule of the opportunist newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook and his fascist Home Secretary Oswald Mosley, authoritarianism increases with the media strictly controlled, the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police modelled on the Nazi blackshirts, and British Jews facing the possibility they will soon share the fate of millions of their brethren on the Continent. Over all hangs the threatening presence of the occupying German army and the small group of SS men who effectively control much of life in what has become a satellite state.

Against a growing background of strikes and civil protest, an ageing Churchill together with Labour's Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, lead a small, but determined underground resistance organization. One of its members is civil servant David Fitzgerald, a man who has a secret of his own to protect despite his Irish name, he is half Jewish. As the Great Smog descends on London he is given the task of rescuing a former college friend, scientist Frank Muncaster, locked in a mental hospital, who may hold a secret that could change the course of both the war and the world. With a disparate group of Resistance activists and his pacifist and unwilling wife Sarah, Fitzgerald is drawn into a world of deception, fear and death as they try to stay one step ahead of an intuitive and determined Gestapo officer.

With DOMINION, C.J. Sansom, better known for his brilliant Shardlake series set in Tudor England, is moving nearer the present. WINTER IN MADRID, his Spanish Civil War epic, highlighted the clash between compassion and conviction and once again this master of the historical novel returns to his constantly underlying theme of the abuse of power and the dangers of nationalism.

This haunting, vivid novel has echoes of Deighton's SS-GB, but it is so much more. Sansom refuses to be hurried in his storytelling. His characters have detailed pasts which give them real depth and their conversations not only drive the plot, but give a horrifying reality to the alternative world in which they live a compelling and truly convincing amalgam of the 1950s as they were and as they might have been, bolstered by a wealth of background detail.

This is a story of a man's growth into moral courage, told with a real sophistication, compassion and excitement. The relationship between Fitzgerald, the good looking, talented achiever and the mentally frail, disabled Frank Muncaster is at the heart of this gripping and humane thriller with a poignant love story woven into the overall thread. The lesser characters are just as well and carefully portrayed and equally as believable. Even the largely predictable ending few individuals or small groups ever totally succeed against the organisation and might of the state apparatus, whatever Hollywood would like us to believe is cleverly and sympathetically handled.

This long, but never boring, book shows Sansom at his peak and establishes him as one of the very best in the genre. It's worth reading his Historical Note in which the half-Scottish author explains his personal and political motivation for producing this well-argued and brilliant novel and his fears that the growing power of nationalistic, anti-immigrant and often openly fascistic power blocs across Europe the SNP comes in for some particularly scathing analysis could plunge us all back into the dark ages.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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