by Christopher Priest

Scribner UK



The Separation

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In The Separation, Christopher Priest related the story of two identical twin brothers, Joe and Jack Sawyer, and their different experiences during World War II.  The story is set in three different time periods, the modern era, when author Stuart Gratton is considering a book about the twins, 1936, when the twins traveled to Berlin to compete in the Olympics, and during the war itself.

After taking a bronze medal in the Olympics, the brothers leave Germany and help Birgit Sattmann, a young Jewish girl who has caught both menís eyes, to escape from the Nazi rťgime.  Initially told through the eyes of Jack (JL), the story seems reasonably straight forward as he tells of his own course of action, becoming an RAF flyer while Joe became a conscientious objector.  Priest quickly introduces some questions about events, by mentioning that the war ended on May 10, 1941, but then continuing the story with the war continuing.  Given JLís own role, it seems that he wasnít speaking of the war ending only for himself.

Nearly all the actual events which are covered during the course of the book are very ambiguous. Confronted with a plethora of contradictory facts, it quickly becomes apparent that Priest is playing with the tropes of alternate history to present a world in which the history is fractured.  Different outcomes result in different world histories and Priest has the desire to follow several of them throughout the book.  Joeís death in one version is averted in another, Birgitís marriage to Joe seems a constant, but the reader does begin to wonder if Jackís comment that he is married to her is true in one of the myriad worlds Priestís story touches.

Priest allows a couple of historical figures, notably Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess to appear in the course of the novel.  Rather than play up the traditional views of these figures, Priest presents them through the very different eyes of Jack and JL, with the result that Churchill is seen, for instance, by turns as a great statesman and a warmonger.

The Separationís greatest strength is Priestís ability to portray all his characters, and their motives and opinions, in a realistic manner.  Jack is not shown as a peace-at-all-costs activist, although there is some of that, but rather as someone who, despite his understanding of the situation, remains somewhat naÔve.  JL is also shown as naÔve, although about different things.  In the RAF, he is doing his duty and servicing his country as best he can without worrying about the ethics which disturb his brother.

Throughout The Separation there is no consensual reality except what the reader brings to the novel.  As the chapters pass, the situation changes for JL and Jack and the world(s) which they inhabit.  The reader is forced to see events which seemed straightforward and understandable in a different light, whether during the World War or in the person of Stuart Gratton who is writing about the Sawyer brothers.  However, given the constant switching of the world and the characters, it is difficult for the reader to build any sympathy for any given version of JL or Jack.

Priest believes in challenging his readers and The Separation does an excellent job in this function. The story he presents is riveting and the ideas which drive the story go beyond the reasonably simple dichotomy of good versus evil which afflicts so many alternative history novels.  The characters are interesting, even if there is little to connect the reader to an ultimate version of any of them and as long as the reader can accept the unannounced reversals, Priest's treatment of them shouldn't cause a problem to the ability to enjoy the novel.

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