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Christopher Priest: The Separation

This is another book on one of Priest’s favourite themes, namely duality. The separation of the title refers to the separation of the two identical twins, who are the main characters in the book, as well as the separation of Britain and Germany during World War II. The story also has a separation, i.e. one based (more or less) on what we know really happened and one based on an alternate history of the war, positing that peace was made between the two countries in May 1941, leaving Germany to fight (and beat) Bolshevism, and the USA to more or less keep out of Europe, both during and after the war, concentrating on beating Japan. Finally, the dual theme is brought out by Priest’s theory that both Rudolf Hess and Churchill had doubles, Hess’ double being the one that crash-landed in Scotland and was later imprisoned, while Churchill used his to visit people that had been bombed.

The ideas Priest puts forward are certainly interesting and the book is well worth reading but it doesn’t entirely work for me. Firstly, there is the cheat of using identical twins. Of course, not only do they fool many of the characters, including Winston Churchill (who, at one time, thinks that there is only one person and not two) and Rudolf Hess, we are also fooled, as the two have the same initials (J L) and Priest or some of the characters call them J L, instead of Joe and Jack, their real names. Most of the time it is clear but not always. Secondly, the peace process (which is revealed very early, though we only learn how later) is, in my view thoroughly flawed on both sides. Firstly, Churchill is adamantly opposed to any peace, wanting total military victory. He and others make this very clear throughout the book, in both stories. Yet, suddenly, without warning he completely changes his views and even agrees to a German demand that he resign as prime minister. Secondly, on the German side, it has been made very clear to us on several occasions (again in both stories) that Hess does not have the support or agreement of Hitler or any other senior Nazi officials for his peace initiatives. Indeed, we see attempts to thwart the process and kill Hess. Yet he seems to be negotiating more or less on his own, gets the deal done and replaces Hitler almost immediately afterwards as Führer.

The basic stories are as follows. Jack and Joe Sawyer are twins, studying at Oxford at the end of the 1930s. They are very keen rowers and are entered in the 1936 Olympics (to be held in Berlin) in the coxless pairs. They also speak fluent German, as their mother is German. While in Berlin for the Olympics, Priest pulls out the somewhat hackneyed let’s save a Jew from the Holocaust story. Both brothers fall for Birgit, daughter of the family they are staying with (friends of their mother and Jewish) but, while Jack is focusing on the rowing, Joe is planning to get Birgit out of Germany. The pair win a bronze medal (given to them by Hess) and Jack later meets Hess at a party while Joe is arranging (unbeknownst to Jack) for Birgit’s escape. The escape is successful and Joe, to Jack’s annoyance, marries Birgit. The stories of the two brothers thereafter converge, with Jack becoming an RAF bomber pilot, while Joe becomes a conscientious objector and then works for the Red Cross. This part is common to both stories.

It is at this point that the stories of the two brothers differ in the two versions – the version set in the real world and the one in the alternate world. Some events are common to both. On the key date of May 10, 1941, date of birth of Stuart Gratton, whose research into the Sawyers starts the book and who, we know, is going to play some other role, two other events take place. The first is that Jack Sawyer’s plane is hit after a bombing raid on Hamburg and crashes in the North Sea (he is badly injured but is rescued). We follow this story – both versions which are very similar – in several bits and pieces. The other key event happening on that date is that, in the real world, Rudolf Hess, crash-landed in Scotland while, in the alternate history, the peace process was concluded. Both brothers play key roles in the war over and beyond what might be expected and, inevitably, Priest tells the story very well.

The philosophical underpinnings of the novel are certainly fascinating. When is war justified and when should compromises be made for peace? Are Britain and Germany natural allies, given their Germanic backgrounds? What was the greatest enemy – Nazism or Bolshevism? And are the Americans a great threat to Europe? Obviously most readers will have views on these issues, probably quite strong ones, and Priest certainly indicates what side he leans to, while putting forward the alternative. He also tells a fine story, with the usual cleverness which keeps us guessing who is who and who is doing what to whom but it doesn’t seem to hang together as well as in his previous books.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Scribner