After first plunging into the literary universe of Christopher Priest with his latest novel, 2011’s cryptic yet fabulously entertaining The Islanders, I took a keen interest in exploring some of his other works. First came 1981’s The Affirmation (now one of Gollanz’s ‘Science Fiction Masterworks’) from which part of the concept behind The Islanders sprung, and then only recently I delved into The Separation. I can’t say quite what attracted me to this rather than any of his other books - though availability certainly played a part. Perhaps it was the link with the Olympic games that are currently enthralling the world, but I’m more inclined to think it’s because I’m a bit of a history nut. I relished the thought of a clever alternate history, and I was indeed rewarded with what is probably my favorite Priest book to date...
In 1936, twin brothers return to Britain from the Berlin Olympic Games with bronze medals and a young Jewish woman, a refugee from the Nazis, concealed inside their van. This act of compassion sets in train a sequence of events which has the potential to change the course of history.Reading a Priest novel is much like stepping into a world where the laws of physics no longer apply. That is to say, you’re stepping into a story unlike most stories, and into a book which may not even follow the conventions of a novel. Expectations should be left at the door as they’ll help you much going further, Priest having an uncanny way of using them against you. Any reading of his prose is inevitably accompanied by unease at the overwhelming sense that something is never quite right. But not only do you not know what isn’t quite right, but it’s also impossible to say in what sense it isn’t quite right.
Soon the brother’s bond is broken apart by their rivalry for the girl, and the first of many separations takes place. World War II is looking, but the brothers take different paths: Jack becomes an RAF pilot; Joe, a conscientious objector, works for the Red Cross. Both are destined to become victims of the war, this warrior and this pacifist.
Five years later, in Britain’s hour of greatest danger, and opportunity for peace unexpectedly arises. A larger separation, a dividing of ways, becomes a real possibility. Which of the brothers is to stride briefly across the stage of history?
Ever a man to build layers into his writing, Priest kicks the novel off with the introduction of a popular historian (living in 1999) used to collecting and oral histories of events related significant historical landmarks. Over the course of his research for other projects, Stuart Gratton has come across intriguing mentions of a J.L. Sawyer, purported to have been both an RAF pilot and a conscientious objector. Much like we the readers come to be intrigued by the many contradictions that arise in the novel, Gratton is curious to see what he could find out about the details of Sawyer’s life. Angela, claiming to be his daughter, delivers unto Gratton her father’s memoirs written post-war.
In these first few chapters Priest establishes some of the historical differences between our perception of historical events and his version of them. Yet as we dive into the fictional memoirs of Jack L. Sawyer, the RAF twin, we discover once more a conventional version of historical events. Jack also gives us his version of events concerning his brother, Joe L. Sawyer (the conscientious objector), his brother’s wife Brigit (the girl smuggled from Nazi Germany) and the developments of the war. In a deliberate attempt to confuse, Priest then goes on to give a contradicting testimony from a man who knew Jack (and is mentioned amply in his memoirs) before giving a third account through the collected papers of Joe.
Needless to say, Priest manages to build a satisfyingly complex puzzle out of the story, where elements of the plot, such as the deaths (or births) of characters and events relating to the war, come to directly contradict each other, creating a plethora of paradoxes which remained inextricably linked by an improbable and inexplicable logic. Mostly the result of one of Priest’s favorite stylistic devices - the unreliable narrator - the complexity of the plot lends itself well to his exploration of themes which often crop up in his work.
Anybody who has seen Christopher Nolan’s cinematic adaption of Priest’s The Prestige will know the interest he has in the curious duality which can occur due to identical twins and the identity problems it can have. He cleverly encourages this by giving the twins in The Separation identical initials (J.L. Sawyer) deliberately seeding confusion for other characters in the book. Identity was also an important theme in both The Affirmation and The Islanders. He also toys with the concept of perception, and tests the limits to which rationalization and logic can be applied to a situation which appears chaotic or without sense.
The result is a magnificent novel, a piece of writing superbly crafted with obvious intelligence and attention to detail. Hints are strewn throughout the novel, often to mislead, but even more often to alert the reader to the fact that what he is reading may not be trusted. On top of its cleverness, The Separation is wonderfully atmospheric, with its historical setting being well fleshed out and a perfect complement to the plot, with the appearance of famous historical figures to create further excitement and dissent. The Separation demonstrates just why Priest is such a lauded author. Anyone looking for a smarter read should jump right in.
Christopher Priest's Website: http://www.christopher-priest.co.uk/
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