Wednesday, 4 December 2013

C.J. Sansom: Dominion

I'm a sucker for books about how the Nazis won, because these days it takes something like that to make everyday reality look good by comparison, and after all, isn't that why we read fiction?

According to CJ Sansom, the gold standard in such books is Robert Harris' Fatherland, which highlights the fundamental problem; like most of the other books in this genre, the idea outpaces the execution. Yup, here's a world where the Nazis won, and look at the ways it's like and yet not like our own world. It's instructive, but it's rarely entertaining. In part, it's because most of the people writing that kind of thing turn out not to be great writers. They dug into themselves and the story they found was a story about stuff, instead of a story about people. In part it's simply that a world run by Nazis is objectively terrible, so it's not much fun to read about.

And so it proved with Dominion, one of my it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-when-I-read-the-sample Kindle impulse reads. The first few chapters read well, and I underestimated the sheer grind that more of the same would be if there was nothing else for 500 pages. At one level, Sansom is doing a good job; the sense of creepy dread that would have pervaded a Quisling Britain never really lets up. Except that creepy dread isn't something that makes you eager to dip back into a book and see what happens next. And the research has been careful, even if Sansom plainly has an axe to grind with Scots Nationalists (he doesn't take any chances about this, devoting a big afterword to how much he personally hates nationalism in general and Scots Nationalism in particular) and Catholics (never mind fat white folks, it's been open season on Catholics since it seems like forever in fiction).

At the level of writing a book I could actually enjoy for its own sake, Dominion doesn't work. It's not a stylish piece of work, so you can't read it for the enjoyment of the language. The characters don't really come to life either; each of the main characters is painstakingly given a backstory set out in successive flashbacks and reminiscences, but it's done so deliberately and intrusively that it kept taking me out of the narrative. There's a writing exercise you do where you work up the character by writing a backstory and experiences which are THEN NEVER EXPLICITLY REFERENCED in the final text, and the backgrounds for David and Sarah and Frank felt just like that. And then, there's the plot. Which is McGuffin driven. I have to admit that I was hoping that the book would be about the compromises of Empire and colonialism, but about a quarter of the way in, that promising idea swerved off into a bog standard plot where plucky heroes have to rescue a plot coupon on legs who holds a secret that could change everything.

And just like that, the magic is gone. It turns into a chase movie where the only suspense is whether the author's cold enough for a downer ending. Sansom's not that cold, something I suspected when one of the supporting characters comes out with a speech which would signal imminent death in any Hollywood movie and is duly gunned down within a few pages. I nodded grimly and settled down to wait for the inevitable near defeat and startling reversal which would save the day. By the time we got to that, it felt as if Sansom was just as keen to get it over with as I was; there's a flat sense of anti-climax to the final few pages of the book which feels not like something intentional, but like something the author couldn't rise above.

As I often say, it's not an outright terrible book. The idea is an interesting one, and the starting plot - before Hollywood cuts in - had potential. And that sense of dread holds up well for at least half the book; these are small people grappling with a big system that has no scruples, and you can sense their trepidation in every step. But in the back half, the consequences don't quite land; the seeds of bleakness and peril fail to sprout convincingly and the book's carefully built up tension falls apart. A shorter book, in which David (the main character) walks the dodgy ground between the quisling Colonial service of a morally compromised Empire and the greater monstrousness of the Nazi domination of Europe - that could really have been something. 

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