Cover of The Separation

The Separation
Christopher Priest
464 pages
published in 2002

John Clute reviews The Separation

I first discovered Christopher Priest thanks to Holland SF, a longrunning Dutch science fiction fanzine. My hometown library had several years of it in bound volumes, running from iirc 1976 until 1982, which I read when I started to get interested in not only reading science fiction, but also in reading about science fiction. As the library also had Christopher Priest's books, I looked them up and read them, though at the time I wasn't that impressed by him.

All of which is quite some time ago and I haven't really read any Priest since, though I did try to read A Dream of Wessex last year, but failed to finish it. What made me pick up this book, the Separation was seeing it in the library the day after a positive review of it had been posted to rec.arts.sf.written. Glad I did.

The Separation revolves around Jack and Joe Sawyer, twin brothers who rowed for Great Britain in the 1936 Olympics. This was to have great repercussions for both of them later. During the Olympics they stayed with friends of their parents, the family Sattmann, who as Jews in Nazi Germany are barely tolerated even during the Olympics, when at least open violence against them was temporarily suspended. The Sattmanns know that sooner or later it will resume and ask Joe to smuggle their daughter, Birgit, out of Germany. They promptly fall in love. Jack, who is somewhat more naive, doesn't know about it until they're back on their way to England.

When World War II breaks out, Jack joins the RAF. His plane, a Wellington bomber is shot down on the same day that Rudolf Hess undertakes his ill fated attempt at bringing peace between Germany and the UK: 10 May 1941. After his recovery and because he met Hess during the Olympics, he is brought in to help question Hess on his motives and to determine whether he is who he says he is. Joe, as a pacifist registers as a conscientious objector and starts work for the Red Cross during the Blitz. During one attack in the early weeks of the Blitz a bomb hits the ambulance he's working in and he's killed.

That's Jack's story. Joe's story is different. In his story, he survives the attack, keeps working for the Red Cross and it's Jack who dies, when his plane is shot down on 10 May 1941, the last day of the war, after Red Cross mediated peace negotiations and Hess and Churchill signed the peace treaty. Jack was involved in these negotiations for the Red Cross and in fact may have been responsible for persuading Churchill to open negotiations.

In Joe's story, World War II ended in 1945 and history followed its familiar to us course. In Jack's story the German War ended on 10 may 1941, Adolph Hitler was deposed shortly after and the German Jews got a homeland on Madagascar. Cleary, both stories can't be right, or can they? Matters are made worse because the framing story, of how famed historian Stuart Gratton gets involved with the mystery of J.L. Sawyer, RAF pilot and conscientious objector, in 1999, in a world that clearly seems to be Joe's --but then how could the memoirs of Jack, which he obtains at the beginning of the story have crossed over?

The Separation is divided in two parts: in the first part Jack's story is told from his memoirs, fairly straight forward, beginning just before the 1936 Olympics and ending when he starts his memoirs. Recurring theme here is the shooting down of his plane and subsequent crash in the Channel on 10 May 1941, which he returns to again and again.

The second part tells Joe's story and is done in diary style, augmented by various official documents, histories, etc detailing the altered history of his timeline. In his world, Europe continues to dominate the world thanks to the early peace between Germany and England, while the US exhausts itself in wars against Japan and in Asia. This timeline, which is also Gratton's timeline feels real, even if it seems absurd at first glance. It's neither hell nor heaven, it just is.

Like Jack, Joe has also a recurring theme. His story is told as a series of ultra realistic lucid dreams, which end with him waking up again in the ambulance he's brought home in, after the air attack in which he was killed in Jack's timeline. In other words, Joe's world, which seems so realistic may actually be unreal, based on the fervent longing for peace of somebody who has barely survived an air attack. Though how do you explain Gratton then?

I read The Separation over the course of a weekend, which has never happened to me before with a Christopher Priest novel --it may well be his most accessible novel. No mean feat, considering the complexity of the story, perhaps the most mature alternate history story I've ever read. The synopsis above is just the tip of the iceberg; I haven't even mentioned the love triangle between Joe, Jack and Birgit. There's none of the slightly dodgy wish fulfilment of some other alternate World War II novels, where you get the impression the author would've loved for the Nazi's to have won. The only real problem I have is the resolution of the "Jewish Question" in Joe's timeline; it seems a bit too bloodless and nice.

HTML 4.0 Checked!

Webpage created 21-03-2003, last updated 30-12-2003
Comments? Mail them to