Notes from underground

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Dominion: an alternative historical novel set in Britain

DominionDominion by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.

David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.

C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.

In some ways the book reminded me of When Smuts goes by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.

One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might-have-beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a “big Volvo”, used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. I don’t recall ever seeing a big Volvo in 1952, but if the war had ended in 1940, instead of 1945, as in the book, a big Volvo might have gone into production and been marketed throughout Europe. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).

I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime.

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