Vive la Resistance!
Well, this seems fitting.
I’ve enjoyed C. J. Sansom’s Tudor crime thrillers in the past, and saw this brick of a book (700+ pages) in my library, while coincidentally, I was browsing for a nice, big, distracting brick of a book. I had originally had something more chirpy in mind, especially as another alternate history classic, Len Deighton’s ‘SS-GB’ is soon to hit our screens, and I’m bound to watch it even though I know it will scare me, but ‘Dominion’ shifts the turning point of the war a year earlier, the crucial point being Lord Halifax, rather than Churchill, taking over as Prime Minister. If we hadn’t got as deeply into the war, the point of no return and the impossibility of just cutting our losses would not have been reached.
I also think this is probably more realistic, if I were to guess how the course of history would have gone. Set in the fifties, this very humane story, mainly based around David and Sarah, a young couple who have lost their toddler son in an accident and don’t have a lot going for them, and there’s not a lot going for the country as a whole, but there are not swastikas everywhere. The British government and crown are controlled by Berlin, a newspaper mogul leading the government (hmmm), people carry identity cards and Mussolini and Hitler make state visits, but the language and culture haven’t changed greatly. The uncomfortable element is that very few people are willing to speak out, and an auxiliary police force, and the Blackshirts, crack down on anyone who does.
But there is a resistance, and David, a civil servant, has found himself working for them. His secret work leads his wife to wonder if he is having an affair, and while she is a pacifist, the eventual rounding up of Britain’s Jews, something that had so far been resisted, and the increase of violent acts she witnesses, begin to make her, and the country, more demonstrative.
There are many threads in this book, several resistance fighters and the standard frightening German Gestapo officer who has come over to investigate the possibility of nuclear secrets being leaked to a college friend of David called Frank, a quiet, damaged, scientist. This is something the resistance also want to get their hands on, making for a tense pace to the book.
The difference between this and some of the other alternative history books I’ve read is the people, and Sansom writes women well. The frailties of the characters are obvious, and no one is an obvious hero. People are cowed and fall into line in a way that is not hard to imagine, and yet people also resist and react in small, and large, displays of dissent that are also not hard to imagine. Sansom’s making the historical fork in the road earlier is clever, as at the time the uncertainty, the hope that it may be alright meant by the time it was obviously not going to be alright, much of the adrenaline had passed, and standing up is hard when you’ve been sat down for a long time (this is true in both politics, and in real life, especially when your knees become audible).
My favourite element of this book is how Churchill is imagined. A vocal opponent of German co-operation when in government, when out of it he becomes to rogue resistance leader. Always on the run, squatting in an underground network of stately homes, and hidden by well-to-do freedom fighters. And I presume, probably more physically fit than we’re used to seeing him. In this alternate history, I imagine Churchill looks more like Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’. Years of resistance fighting is bound to burn a lot of calories and keep your glutes firm, and restrict one’s access to brandy and bow ties.
It’s consoling to think in spite of what the government says (this or the one over the water) people are far less likely to sleep-walk into a dictatorship these days. We are quick to draw historical parallels, even if those in charge would rather we didn’t. And the difference between what David and Sarah see happening, and the official government press releases, and no mention of atrocities on the news wouldn’t fly these days. It takes seconds to tweet pictures, especially if they involve unfortunate comb-overs and gusts of wind.