The shelves now groan with counterfactual novels offering alternative outcomes to every major “what if” in history. Two “what ifs” still dominate the field. The South wins the American Civil War and Adolf Hitler wins World War II. CJ Sansom’s Dominion offers a variation on the latter.
In 1940, after Dunkirk, Neville Chamberlain resigns as British Prime Minister. But instead of selecting Winston Churchill as his replacement, the cabinet chooses the appeasing Lord Halifax, who at once capitulates to Hitler. The Nazis don’t invade Britain. Instead, they give Britain self-governing “dominion” status under German supervision. Think a bigger version of Vichy France.
Flash forward to 1952. The impenetrable smog that chokes London symbolises confusion and fear. The natives are getting restless, as Germany’s draining war with Russia has continued for more than a decade. Out in the countryside, there’s a growing resistance movement directed by the octogenarian Churchill.
Sansom has great fun telling us who makes up the collaborationist government: the PM is that opportunistic swine Lord Beaverbrook; his deputy is the Fascist Oswald Mosley; the Minister of Education is Arthur Bryant (historians will chortle knowingly).
To his credit, Sansom avoids the idea of British exceptionalism: in this alternative Britain, there are as many collaborators and thugs coming out of the woodwork as there were in any country that was occupied by the Nazis.
The main plot has a German Gestapo agent hunting down some British resisters with the aid of a collaborating British cop. The Gestapo man is depicted as principled and intelligent, even if serving a monstrous cause; the British cop is a sadistic yob.
The set-up is good and the concept intriguing. But Dominion is 569 pages long and, as a thriller, pedestrian. It winds up with a formulaic situation. Can the Resistance get a Man Who Knows Too Much to a rescuing American submarine before the Gestapo catches up? A final scene of piling-up corpses becomes unintentionally farcical. I kept remembering that my favourite South-wins-the-Civil-War book (Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee) comes in at fewer than 200 pages.
Sansom also commits a major blunder by adding a 15-page essay on his sources and inspiration. It ends up as a rant against those in the Scottish Nationalist Party, whom he sees as Fascists in the making.
He does, however, have a positive opinion of this country. Whenever New Zealand is mentioned, it is as the one country in the British Empire that vigorously resists fascism and stands up for independent trade unions.
My own view is New Zealand should live up to this good opinion by rejecting its own degrading “dominion” status and getting its own head of state. Maybe this could be the subject for another counter-factual novel.
DOMINION, by CJ Sansom (Mantle, $34.99).
Nicholas Reid is a writer, poet and historian who blogs about books at Reid’s Reader.