‘Under the Alliance, Great Britain will become a sister nation. Our two peoples will be entwined through their ancient Germanic brotherhood in a ‘special relationship’. The British Parliament will be involved in the making of some laws, through overall, the Protectorate will administer the territory to the benefit of all.’
What if America had never entered World War II and Germany had won? What if Britain was occupied in a German ‘Alliance’ and suddenly you could trust no one around you, your neighbour, your colleagues, your lover?
What if they are watching you?
Rose Ransom is a ‘Geli’, the most elite of the caste system imposed in post-war Great Britain after German occupation. She is blonde and blue-eyed, lives in an appropriate area of London, goes to her job in the Ministry of Culture like she’s supposed to and doesn’t interact with anyone that she shouldn’t. And most of all, she does not think anti-Alliance thoughts.
At least that’s what she tells herself.
As a State visit from ‘The Leader’ (whom we are led to believe is Hitler), looms ever closer, the carefully curated obedience of Britain’s downcast public begins to crack, with sinister phrases from forbidden literature appearing, graffitied on the most important buildings in London. Where are they coming from? Who has access to these banned texts? And what are they trying to tell Rose?
If this review already seems full of questions, it’s because ‘Widow Land’ by C.J. Carey and published by Quercus has our curiosity hooked from the first chapter of this alternative feminist history, keeping us guessing throughout. We arrive in England several years after the initial German occupation in time to see the weeks leading up to the coronation of King Edward and Queen Wallis. King George, his heir Elizabeth and the rest of the royal family ‘Vanished’ with a capital 'V' years before. Carey expertly builds the world around us, with some details familiar and others impeccably imagined. The Orwellian surveillance State constructs itself -almost replacing the real history in our minds - as Carey takes us down the twists and turns that history could have taken in Nazi Britain.
The world building in this book is almost flawless. We’re so fascinated following Rose through her daily routine that we don’t realise we could almost be sitting in on a history lecture, so detailed and researched is the life she constructs. And while I adored this level of detail in the world construction, some readers might find that the pacing of the story is a little slow for them, despite Carey leaving a breadcrumb trail for us to follow throughout. However, once the story does pick up, we are breathless with fear and anticipation as the careening plots of Britain and Rose’s destinies collide.
This is simultaneously a book for people who love books and literature and also one that will make book lovers (especially classics fans) cringe. Rose’s job in the Ministry of Culture is to be a literature ‘corrector’, rewriting classics and schoolbooks to be in line with Alliance ideology. That means no subversive or rebellious women, no thinking for one’s self, and no resistance to or questioning of authority. Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennett becomes meek and compliant under Rose’s pen, Jo March of Little Women is contented with her lot, learning her lesson that should women not write or strive for higher than their position.
‘No female protagonist should be overly intelligent, dominant or subversive, no woman should be rewarded for challenging a man, and no narrative should undermine in any way the Protector’s views of the natural relationship between the sexes.’
And yet all the while, these ideas are sinking into Rose’s psyche, awakening her from her complacent, numbed, obedient life under the regime. She slowly blinks awake as little acts of subversion sneak into her life. The power of literature and ideas is at the core of this novel, how words can start movements or control a nation. How they can be manipulated and wielded like weapons to coerce or inspire. They light flames that once caught, cannot be quenched.
The seamless blend of fact and fiction is made all the more chilling by the author’s note at the book’s end, detailing which of her characters were real and which events and organisations within the book actually existed. Shocking though Carey’s imagination is, real life is even more frightening at times.
As we frequent everything from occupied London's glittering underground nightclubs to the shadowy, deprived tenements of Widow Land, the segregated and separated nation begins to piece itself together like a jigsaw of paranoia, the Regime deftly turning all of Britain against each other. Brilliantly imagined and skillfully researched, this is a counter-factual study of how the world might have been. Equal parts fascinating and terrifying, Carey’s world will ensnare history buffs, feminist readers and fiction lovers alike.