A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
C J Sansom is already well-known as the author of the Shardlake novels, a series of crime novels set in Tudor London. This stand-alone work is very different at some levels, but at others, it is not. Those who enjoy Sansom’s claustrophobic depiction of London in the clutches of a terrifying regime will find much to relish in this new novel.
That said, this is not Tudor England and Dominion’s protagonist, David Fitzgerald is not Matthew Shardlake, even if he has certain things in common with him, at least at an emotional level. Dominion is an intense political thriller, which takes as its starting point a Cabinet meeting that actually happened. In May 1940, the British government was in deep crisis. The war with Nazi Germany was going very badly, France was under attack and would seek an armistice the following month. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was under considerable pressure, both from those who wanted him to seek terms with Germany and those who were determined he should not. He was seriously ill, he lacked credibility with both camps and the only question was who should replace him, which is what this meeting was about. Readers will know that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and the rest is history, but they may also know that this was by no means a certainty; Churchill’s stock with his party was low and many of them preferred the patrician Lord Halifax, who regarded Adolf Hitler as beneath contempt and notice. He would not have fought a war with him. Sansom’s novel asks, what if Lord Halifax had become Premier? As his historical note at the end of the book makes clear, there is no one scenario; but the one he offers is very compelling indeed.
Having offered an alternative outcome for that crucial meeting, Sansom skips ahead 12 years, to 1952. Interestingly, 12 years was how long Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich lasted. This gives the new state of play enough time to bed down so that we can see the impact of Britain’s non-war on its people.
Britain is certainly not at peace. This is a country that has been spared the Blitz, the destruction of Coventry and other British cities and the worst of the battlefields, but has paid for it in other ways. Instead of post-war recovery, the country has to deal with creeping Nazification; Sansom’s contention is that capitulation would not have been the end of the story. Britain has kept its empire, but its relationship with that empire is characterised by increasing bitterness, violence and mutual loathing; in other words, it is shaped by Britain’s abject relationship with the real power in Europe. Britain can’t come to terms with its shame and the colonies are paying the price. In Britain, the Blackshirts are on the streets and Oswald Mosley is right where he wants to be. He is Home Secretary and people in the know speak of him as the next Prime Minister. That job is in the dubious clutches of newspaper publisher, Lord Beaverbrook, a man with the sort of power even Rupert Murdoch can only dream about. The country is becoming increasingly repressive towards those who don’t fit a particular narrow Aryan mould; the Jews in particular, but also those with disabilities and mental health problems. Britain is effectively under occupation, and the fact that no-one calls it that makes it more terrifying, not less. As Sarah Fitzgerald is told by an old man she encounters in the city:
‘The Gestapo, the SS. Don’t you know who’s really in charge of everything now?’ p89
Dominion is not, of course, a history book, it is a novel and would not work nearly so well if the characterisation was not effective. For the most part it is; I particularly liked the depiction of Frank Muncaster, a scientist, who is in a mental hospital for attacking his appalling drunk of an older brother, Edgar. How this came about is at the core of Frank’s personal history and ultimately, the narrative itself. Some people might be irritated by the regular references to Frank’s odd grin; a quirk of this gentle man’s debilitating shyness. However, I found Frank so endearing it didn’t bother me.
More complicated still is Gunther Hoth, an SS investigator who is sent to London to find out what Frank knows. Through him, we soak up the terrible implications of Nazi Germany as a political and diplomatic entity in the heart of London. Senate House, Germany’s embassy, is their territory and anything can happen to those who are taken there. Gunther (like David, his creator always calls him by his first name) himself is an eminently decent, civilized man in every respect, except his job and the ideological cladding he maintains to carry it out and keep his sanity. That means a fair portion of him is given over to the worst bestiality imaginable. That it is blended with patience and sensitivity makes him even more frightening, especially alongside Gessler, his bullying loud-mouth of a boss and Syme, the nasty, self-serving Special Branch officer who is assigned to work with him.
It is interesting that David Fitzgerald, the civil service protagonist at the heart of the story is perhaps one of the novel’s less successful characters, in that it is hard for the reader to get a handle on what he is really like. This may have a lot to do with who David really is, compared to what he presents; he is of Irish parentage, but his mother’s family were Jewish, a fact he has had to keep to himself. This has worked so well that most of the time he sees himself as a nicely repressed, middle-class Englishman. The increasingly hostile tenor of British public life brings this hidden part of him unwillingly to the surface, but much of the time, David is hard to pin down. He is also carrying a burden of grief over a lost child at a time when gender divisions were brutally clear; men were not entitled to give way, no matter how great their pain. This might also add to the reader’s sense that David is a little too enigmatic. It is also interesting, and very poignant that a man living in an increasingly Germanised Britain doesn’t know that ‘lieb’ is the German word for ‘love.’ This tells the reader a lot about the regime David is living under, as well as the man himself.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in the way Sansom blends elements of British society as it was with the scenario he imagines. There are times the reader might have to remind themselves that it didn’t happen that way. This is partly because he presents real events with conviction and authority. The depiction of the Great London Smog of 1952 is brilliantly done, showing the smog as a very real environmental catastrophe – recent research blames it for as many as 12,000 deaths – while allowing the imaginative reader to construe it as a metaphor for the stifling political atmosphere which is poisoning the whole country. In some ways, I found the presence of television even more frightening. It is much more ubiquitous in Sansom’s version of 1952 than it was in the real world, without the stigma often attached to it by the many people who regarded it as common; in fact, the sort of regime he imagines would probably be very keen on it. Although radio continues to be popular, television is taking over and is giving the Nazis and their British supporters a physical presence in people’s living rooms. This chilling detail gives the narrative the texture of a political horror novel; television is the agent of a malign force and it is everywhere.
Because the blend between fiction and fact is so well done the reader might be startled by one or two details which appear to challenge the boundaries between the two. The use of Enoch Powell as a fictional character springs to mind; some readers will certainly find it ethically discomforting. Powell, who can kindly be referred to as a difficult, abrasive figure, only died in 1998 and may have family still living. Sansom gives other real people the fictional treatment – Lord Beaverbrook receives some particularly rough handling – but as he died nearly fifty years ago, the issues are perhaps blunted.
Although Dominion is intense and in places very bleak, it is not without hope. The willingness of ordinary people to stand up for themselves, their neighbours and those weaker than themselves offers a spark of light, as does the reassertion of a culture outside and in opposition to Nazification. The Jive Boys are an unsavoury bunch of young hooligans after the manner of the Teddy Boys, but their existence is an affront to fascist and Nazi values and their taste for riot and affray brings them into regular conflict with the horrible Auxiliary Police and the Blackshirts. The Slovak Resistance worker Natalia is an artist with a distinctly Beatnik way of dressing and living. Sarah Fitzgerald belongs to a committee that seeks donations of toys for the children of unemployed workers, a rebuke perhaps, to the meanness of many modern politicians as well as those in her own time. In the wider world, the liberal Adlai Stephenson has won the Presidential election in the States, while much of the Commonwealth is pulling away from Britain in disgust. What is more interesting however is the way British people obdurately refuse to elevate race and nationality over class. Much to Gunther Hoth’s exasperation, they continue to regard class as the prism through which they see the world; everybody, from the Communist nurse, Ben, to the philanthropic Mrs Templeman sees class as the ultimate arbiter of people’s place and their life-chances, whether they approve of it or not. It is the ultimate irony that Britain’s awareness and embrace of class inequality is one of its greatest weapons against the power of a racialised state and one which many people across the political spectrum will recognise, with varying degrees of satisfaction, dismay and resignation.
Mantle. London 2012.
Digital edition: ASIN: B008PQ8UX0. 604pp.
Hardcover: ISBN-13: 978-0230744165. 450pp.