Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]
C.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories. The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.
He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac Prime Minister.
Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins, an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.
It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel. The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.
But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel; it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?
Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot. I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:
Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.
That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.
If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.
One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……
The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013.
The Author: Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.
Why I read this book: I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life. I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth.
My reviews of Sovereign, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Lamentation can be viewed by clicking the links.
23 thoughts on “Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]”
Pingback: 6 Degrees From Phosphorescence to Regeneration : BookerTalk
Pingback: Sample Saturday: 3 historical fiction novels : BookerTalk
Pingback: A year in first lines: 2017 | BookerTalk
I laughed at us both mentioning SS-GB early on in our reviews, I suppose it’s a natural comparison to make! With regards to the SNP, I live in a highly political area with very strong SNP support, and since the EU Ref the SNP supporters have been split as this was the one area of Scotland that it has recently transpired closely voted to Leave, and so it’s been pretty much war between the two sides of the same party making me want to hide under my desk. I think listening to these arguments all day made me switch off when the nurse started to rant, but it was definitely clumsy.
There must have been something in the air that night that helped our brains to connect. Poor you caught in the political debate crossfire – the both sides are probably repeating the same arguments over and over too ….
The only way I can describe it as Twitter made real :O I had ear drops and cotton wool in due to an infection for a few days and it was muffled bliss! BTW, good to see you back, hope all went well.
Hi Lucy, yes the surgery went well – slowly getting back into action. Drove my car for the first time today in a month
I like the premise but if it’s lacking subtlety . . . Not sure.
most of it is absolutely fine – the lack of subtlety really comes in when one of the characters starts droning on about the SNP
What a fascinating premise. I read a couple of the Shardlake novels some time ago – but never did get round to the rest.
he’s written only two non-Shardlake novels; Dominion and Winter in Madrid. I have the latter – hope its lacking a political axe to grind
I have read one book by this author, it;s so good, I have to keep at it, thanks for your great review
Really interesting review. I’ve read the Shardlake series and loved it. I’ve always thought that Beaverbrook was a rather sinister figure so maybe suits being a megalomanic PM!
I have another of his non Shardlake series to read – Winter in Madrid. Hope that is better…..
I’ve read that and thought it was so, so … a bit unsatisfactory.
I think one has to be subtler. The alt-history I read recently of a 1940s Fascist Britain had political points to make, but it allowed them to emerge organically rather than just stating them.
Robert Harris did something similar by the way, Fatherland, it’s quite good. They all though do seem to involve a lot of chasing people around. A matter of genre I imagine.
Indeed Max it was subtlety that I found lacking in Dominion. It would have been so much better a novel with it.
I read this when it was first published, having enjoyed, like you, the Shardlake stories. I was underwhelmed, although the nationalism wasn’t apparent then. I thought it was unoriginal and not that well done.
I like alternative histories and I did consider this, but got completely put off when I found out he was using the book for propaganda purposes. He’s entitled to his views, as is everyone, but as an exiled Scot I can understand where the SNP’s viewpoint comes from and I felt uncomfortable with him sticking his polemic in an afterword!
The main issue was that it felt made one of the Resistance guys a Scot just so that he could drone on and on about the SNP. It just felt so obvious a tactic because really the position of Scotland had nothing to do with the plot
I wondered what you’d make of this. Have you seen (read) Man in the High castle? I’ve seen the first two seasons and loved it far more than I thought I would
Ive not come across that series Guy – just looked it up though. It all depends on the production quality whether this would be worth watching though if Ridley Scott is involved that’s a good sign
I haven’t read the book yet and I have thoroughly enjoyed both seasons. The two cultures both have their hideous features. I think I’d hideout in the neutral zone