Christopher Priest's "The Separation" breaks from the standard Alternate History templates in almost every way possible, and as a result, is superb addition to the genre. I say this because unlike most alternate histories, which focus on story (specifically timeline) to the exclusion of plot and character development, Priest has taken the opposite approach and written a novel that explores ideas and reality within the framework of an alternate history. His world is a tool (albeit a fascinating, well realized one) used to highlight certain salient elements of his narrative. Moreover, Priest leaves his world ambiguous and oddly uncertain.
This uncertainty begins with the opening pages of the novel, which at first strike the reader as relatively standard alternate history. It is the early twenty-first century in a world where Britain and Germany signed an armistice in the spring of 1941. Priest quickly frames a believable alternate world without bogging down in the details, and the novel seems set to follow the researches of one Stuart Gratton into the origins of this early peace. Intriguing yes, but hardly surprising or unique for an alternate history. However, that quickly changes as Gratton comes into possession of diaries that reveal the story of an RAF bomber pilot, and it quickly becomes clear that these diaries detail the events of our own world.
Thus begins a narrative that weaves back and forth across itself. Through the fascinating lives of J. L. Sawyer, twins who share the same initials, the reader is constantly left wondering what is real and what is imagined. Considering that the reader actually knows which story is true, this is a remarkable accomplishment, and speaks highly to Priest's substantial abilities as a writer.
To delve more deeply into the plot would risk spoiling it, but there are numerous elements to this novel that are worth mentioning. The first is it's presentation; Priest deftly switches from the third to the first person, and often interjects "historical" letters and documents to flesh out the narrative. While in less capable hands, this would come across as contrived, here it succeeds nicely in separating the lives of the Sawyer brothers.
Which brings us to the literary device of the twins; again, in less capable hands, they could come across as hackneyed, but carefully handled, as they are here, they are an essential and fascinating plot element. Aside from the broadly recognized, if not fully appreciated, bond between twins, Priest explores even deeper elements. His twins, despite being two people seem to be bound to only one destiny. Each has his preferred path, but they are mutually exclusive, and immutable. This tension, although never explicitly stated or explored, informs the entire novel, and is key to Priest's ability to keep the reader wrong-footed for quite literally the entire novel.
Finally, this question of destiny brings us to the book's consideration of reality. At times Priest seems to verge on the "multiverse" approach found elsewhere in science fiction; in other words, his world and our own are not exclusive but just two of innumerable possible worlds. Ultimately, however, he backs away from this approach; while not a proponent of predestination, he views history as a force that can be diverted but never meaningfully altered. In this specific instance, he uses Hess, Churchill and other real people to illustrate that other outcomes, no matter how strongly desired, aren't plausible in the face personalities, circumstances, etc. If I am correct in this reading, it has fascinating implications for the entire structure of the book, to the point that in a manner of speaking the book ceases to exist for the characters once it has been read in its entirety.
I used the word "if" above for two reasons; the first is that while I am confident in my reading, I can't state conclusively that I am correct. The reason for this hesitation is the second reason for using "if": this entire novel is about "ifs". The story crosses back upon itself countless times, and the reader is constantly left to question what is consequential and what is insignificant. By exploring the alternative paths available, Priest highlights the one that actually was followed to great effect; it is easy to assume that the world would have been a better place absent World War II, but what would the implications of such a peace have been?
Blending elements of convergent and divergent history, not to mention secret history, Priest has produced a remarkable novel. His world is tremendously detailed without being overly expository, and his writing posits a host of intriguing questions. Where "The Separation" truly shines though is in its consideration of our humanity. Priest uses his world to explore our hopes, aspirations and desires. Moreover, by deliberately fracturing and blurring the narrative, he calls into question reality itself even as he brings into stark relief the implications of our actions. A novel rich in ideas, beautifully conceived, superbly executed and brilliantly written, "The Separation" is not to be missed.