Gollancz, 2004, 405 p
This is an altered history of a superior sort which won the BSFA Award for 2002 and the Clarke Award in 2003. It focuses on the lives of twin brothers, Jack and Joe Sawyer, who both have the same middle initial and so can be easily confused for one another. The twins won a bronze medal in the coxswainless pairs at the Berlin Olympics. Their medals were presented to them by Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, who plays a large part in the novel. Both Joe’s and Jack’s written (or transcribed) memories carry the burden of the narrative.
While in Berlin the twins stay at the home of some Jews their parents were friendly with. When they leave they smuggle the couple’s daughter, Birgit, out of Germany in the boot of their car. She soon marries Joe. After war comes in 1939 Jack joins the RAF and subsequently pilots bombing raids over Germany, while Joe is a conscientious objector and undertakes work for the Red Cross. Given the attitudes they presented while in Germany both these developments are surprising.
There is a framing device (which is not returned to so it’s more like a set-up device) where Stuart Gratton, a historian searching for his next subject, has happened upon the twins’ existence. This is a curious sort of prelude as it serves to unbalance the narrative somewhat. It is set in a world where the British war with Germany ended on May 10th 1941 (the day in our world when Hess landed in Scotland and was taken prisoner). An untrammelled Germany then overpowers the USSR, the USA is embroiled in a war in China – where it defeats Mao – and there is a subsequent Cold War with Germany. Yet the notebooks Gratton receives from Jack Sawyer’s daughter describe memories from our world. In these notes Jack is asked by Churchill to meet the imprisoned Hess and concludes the prisoner is a look-alike. That within the body of the novel The Separation Gratton does not comment on these discrepancies compared to the history of his world struck me as odd. That there may be a possible connection between Gratton and the twins is something we have to infer for ourselves.
Possibly due to his conscientious objection Joe is set upon and suffers head injuries. Thereafter he experiences “lucid imaginings” – premonitions, hallucinations, experiences from other realities – which provide a rationale of sorts for the altered history. The hint of unreliability hangs heavy over all of this though.
There is not one separation here but several. A possibility, not of one altered reality, but quite a few. Whether the real Hess took off for Britain (claims that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and held in Spandau Prison was not real have been refuted) whether he was shot down by his own side, the twins’ estrangement due to them both loving Birgit, the peace talks and armistice, Joe’s “imaginings,” Gratton’s from the twins.
I’m not entirely sure that in the end the novel as a whole coheres but Priest’s writing is always enough to make the journey through one of his books worthwhile.