It’s 1953, but not as we know it. England is getting ready for a Coronation – but not Elizabeth’s.
In this captivating, dystopian novel by C.J. Carey – novelist, journalist, broadcaster and alter-ego of writer Jane Thynne, Hitler’s Germany has won the second World War and a Grand Alliance has been established between Germany and Great Britain, with Edward V111 and Mrs. Simpson as soon-to-be King and Queen, and Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s philosopher guru, landing his passionately aspired-to role as “Protector” of England, aka “the Protectorate”.
Although this is fiction, many of the characters existed in the actual Schutzstaffel (SS) task force established by Rosenberg, who was notorious for his particular distrust of literature, libraries and women.
The author’s obvious and extensive knowledge of WW2 history and Nazi ideology is central to this book and provides an engrossing and fascinating account of a terrifyingly counterfactual yet utterly believable alternative world, where control is everything and anything that fails to fit the prescribed narrative is either edited or erased.
In Rosenberg’s England, every female over the age of fourteen is summoned for classification – a system designed to control women lest they become mutinous, and under which information such as family and health history, race, age and reproductive status determines their caste. Their caste, in turn, influences everything from where they live to what they eat; whether they can work; what, if any, entertainment they can enjoy and what clothes they can wear.
The hierarchy of the caste system ranges from the elite caste, popularly known as Gelis, through to the bottom of the pile – the Freidas, a diminutive of the nick-name Friedhofefrauen, meaning cemetery women, and there are no prizes for guessing the fate that awaits ‘these widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man’.
Rose, the novel’s central character, is a member of the Geli caste – the golden ticket, ostensibly, but only when compared to the circumstances of those below. Rose works for the Cultural Ministry and is tasked with removing perceived subversive texts from the literature she loves. Rose is an intelligent woman for whom inventing a narrative that presents Jane Eyre as submissive, or Elizabeth Bennett as dull, to support the ideology of her employer, severely conflicts with her innate feminist beliefs.
There are many very interesting aspects to this book, not least the indestructible might of women. In a presumably unintended nod to present-day pandemic-inspired dystopia, it examines how the course of history can be changed in the blink of an eye and prompts inevitable questions about the compromises people are prepared to make for the “greater good”, and how humans can adapt to imposed changes and rules that would previously have been considered intolerable.
Although superbly written, with warmth and accessibility, there is much about this novel that feels rehashed (Handmaid’s Tale, Fatherland, etc.). The lyricism of the writing sometimes jars with the very disconcerting circumstances; where characters “clip down steps” and “exchange knowing smiles” while in perpetual and plausible dread of what their futures hold. The factual content of the novel is arguably its mainstay and is expertly and intriguingly woven into fiction, but it heaves with detail in the centre sections while drawing to an abrupt and slightly unsatisfying finish, leaving much unrevealed and unresolved. A sequel in the making, perhaps?
On the whole, Widowland is an absorbing depiction of a Nazi-controlled Britain which, although not entirely original, delivers a chilling, clever, lively, relevant and thought-provoking read.
(c) Angela Connaughton
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