The Separation by Christopher Priest
Published: Old Earth Books (2003), Scribner (2002)
Awards Won: BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award
“Twin brothers Joe and Jack, both with the initials J.L. Sawyer, competed together as rowers in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and their lives afterward were shaped by the coming war. Their differing ideologies caused them to become estranged as the paths of their lives diverged. Joe became a conscientious objector and worked with the Red Cross. Jack became an RAF bomber pilot, going on endless missions against the German people to defend his own.
However, this is not only a story of two different perspectives of the same war, but an examination of what the war might have been in numerous contradictory realities. Which of the brothers, if either, dies in a bombing raid? Does the UK sign a separate peace with Germany, or do they fight the war through to the end? The past, present, and future are ambiguous and full of possibilities.” ~Allie
This is the third of Priest’s novels that I have read, the first two being The Prestige and The Islanders. I listened to this one on audiobook, thanks to a new blue-tooth iphone connector that will allow me to listen to novels on my commute. There will be more audiobook reviews to come! I thought the narrator, Joe Jameson, was excellent, though I have no idea how accurately he represented the various regional accents of the UK. For another interesting coincidence, this is the first of two reviews that will focus on alternate histories of WWII, since my next review will be of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
The Separation is a less fantastical story than the other two novels that I have read by Priest, but there are common elements between the three appear to be characteristic of his style. Perhaps most notably, twins or doubles are an integral element of the story. The Sawyer brothers are not the only pair that makes an appearance, and the nature of being or having a twin or double is often touched upon. In the case of the Sawyer brothers, they are tied together by their similarities, and their differences serve to emphasize the alternate versions of WWII. Joe tends to dominate the narrative of a WWII with a peaceful resolution, while Jack dominates the narrative of a war that continues to allied victory. The two brothers’ stories often interact in confusing ways, and sometimes others even take them to be the same person. It was sometimes difficult to keep track of each twin’s current experiences at different points in the novel, but they made an interesting pair with which to explore variations on WWII history.
The two other elements that seem to be characteristic of Priest are the extensive use of fictional documents, which comprise most of the novel, and unresolved puzzles. The story is told through the Sawyer twins’ personal records, through the experiences of others who knew them, and through a historian who is investigating their life history. I thought the documents were very well done, with each fictional author having a distinct voice that was further enhanced by the audiobook narrator. The puzzling part of this collection of documents arises from the fact that they are often contradictory. They seem to describe more than two simple separate timelines (peace and war) since there are also records within each of these broad categories that seem to differ in key details. It is never clarified how much of the disagreements arise from unreliable narrators, and how much arise from differing realities. I think the confusion and contradictions might be intended as a comment on the uncertainty of recorded history, but they were also fun to try to piece together into coherent worlds. As in The Islanders, one should not expect to find definitive explanations in the text, or for the story to have a particularly clear resolution. However, it felt like a very carefully constructed novel, and I think it would benefit from multiple readings to help filter all the information into the right patterns.
While trying to keep all the details straight, it also occurred to me that this would probably be an easier book to follow for readers with extensive knowledge of the UK during the WWII time period. Being able to pick up immediately how Priest is altering history might help one see more clearly the intentions behind the particular changes. I am not especially knowledgeable in this area, but I enjoyed going over the details with my father, who has read more extensively than I have on the subject. For instance, I didn’t really know anything about the theories surrounding Ruldolf Hess, and the possibility of peace between the UK and Germany in 1941. The Separation might be better appreciated by someone coming to it with more knowledge than I have, but I enjoyed being inspired to learn. It is a novel that demands an engaged and attentive reader, and one that is well worth the consideration.
My Rating: 4/5
The Separation tells the story of Jack and Joe Sawyer, twins who took two different paths in the Second World War. Jack joined the RAF, while Joe joined the Red Cross. While they share the same reality, they also seem to exist in alternative, overlapping realities. For instance, in Joe’s dominant reality, the war ends in 1941 with a peace arrangement between the UK and Germany. The story is told through many different sorts of fictional documents, which often tell contradictory stories about the lives of the two young men. The story is a kind of puzzle, requiring the reader to be actively engaged in piecing information together from the many sources. Many questions are never explicitly resolved, and I think the novel would require multiple readings to appreciate fully. I thought The Separation was intensely interesting, and I enjoyed continuing to think through the various unresolved questions long after I'd finished the novel. I look forward to reading more of Christopher Priest's work in the future!