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The date is November 11 1952. The old king has died and Elizabeth II is queen, though yet to be crowned. Londoners from all over the city have gathered near the Cenotaph to attend Remembrance Sunday ceremonies. All are sombrely dressed, the general darkness relieved only by the scarlet flash of the poppies they wear as a memorial to the war dead. But the dead they mourn, the war they commemorate, is not the one we might expect. Britain barely fought in what we would call World War II. Instead, after a brief and disastrous engagement on the continent, the counsels of Lords Halifax and Beaverbrook were deemed sensible and wise, and Britain, in exchange for a continued hold on her Empire, became essentially a client state of Nazi Germany.
Anyone looking for a lesson in how to write counter-factual history could do no better than this stunning first chapter in C.J. Sansom's DOMINION. It has all the close observation and attention to detail of a first-rate reporter filing a story from the scene. But of course, none of this ever happened. What is chilling is that it so easily could have, as the fact-based prologue in which Churchill and Halifax contend for Britain's future reminds us. If Churchill had lost that contest, the Britain that Sansom then describes would easily have been possible.
It is a land not unlike actual post-war Britain. There are consumer shortages. The prevailing mood is subdued, even depressed. The war still continues on the Eastern Front, where the Soviet Union maintains its resistance, a drag on the economy and the spirit of western Europe under Hitler. United States isolationism, which kept that country out of the war, is perhaps about to weaken as Adlai Stevenson becomes president. (Eisenhower, denied the chance to display his military talent and rise to the status of national hero, never even ran in the election.) But as the Third Reich tightens its hold on occupied Europe and nears the completion of its ambitions - European Jews have all but disappeared, resistance has been all but suppressed - Britain is gradually losing all semblance of independence. National policy is directed by Germany, civil institutions are under Nazi control. Jews, who had to date escaped the fate of their continental counterparts, are now slowly being rounded up and sent away to a fate that the reader knows but the characters are not sure of and would rather not know. There are many who tacitly support Nazi rule as long as they are comfortable and quite a few, including the brother-in-law of David Fitzgerald, the protagonist, who actively approve.
But there are knots of resistance, people following Churchill's determination to never surrender, and these are organized into a loose series of cells that do what they can to impede Nazi power. One of these cells can be found in of all places the Dominions Office, comprised of civil servants engaged in low-key spying. David Fitzgerald is a cautious and somewhat reluctant recruit. His little son recently died in an accident and he and his wife Sarah are not coping very well with the loss. Furthermore, David has a secret he has shared with no one. His mother, an Irishwoman, was a Jew, a fact he only recently learned, and thus he is vulnerable under the race laws now being promulgated. Still, when a college friend of his, Frank Muncaster, turns out to be in possession of a secret that could give the Germans the final edge in their plans for world domination, he does not hesitate to try to rescue him from the mental hospital he is being held in. Muncaster does not want to be rescued. He wants to go to his grave with his secret, and soon, since he fears falling into the hands of Gestapo torturers and knows he will tell all.
Determined to get hold of Muncaster and arrest the resistance group is a Gestapo officer named Gunther (if this is a covert reference to what might have become of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther in a counter-factual universe, it is an intriguing one). Gunther has honed his skills as a Jew-hunter on the continent and is prepared to go up against a parcel of essentially amateur spies with every confidence. He is an interesting figure if an unsympathetic one, to the degree that he is convincing in his professionalism and in his reluctance to go further than he thinks he needs to when questioning suspects.
It is an unequal contest between David Fitzgerald's group and the Gestapo, filled with tension, suspense, and a abiding sense that failure may be the likeliest outcome. All of this strikes the reader with the force of reality. We may be in an alternate universe, but it is one that has all its roots in our own factual experience. Faced with the same circumstances, only the most self-confident might imagine that they could win out over the force arrayed against them. Still one must try and David and his friends do their best.
Women play an interesting part in the drama. Sansom is careful to portray them as products of their time, and in this case, a time in which they did not have the liberating experiences of wartime service. Still, they do rise to the occasion when they need to with a quiet courage that is thoroughly admirable.
There are any number of flashier, more testosterone-driven thrillers than DOMINION but none, not even Robert Harris' admirable FATHERLAND, that implicates contemporary readers so closely in the moral choices made by its characters or makes so eloquent a contemporary point. As David's wife, Sarah, who has been kept thoroughly in the dark about her husband's activities observes at one juncture, "We used to think the British people would never become Fascists or Fascist collaborators, but they can. I suppose anybody can, given the right set of circumstances."
Sansom has received deserved praise for his Shardlake series that so vividly brings Tudor England to life. In DOMINION, he takes on a harder task - to animate a past that never was but that could so easily have been our own. He succeeds magnificently.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2014
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