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The Separation [Paperback]

Christopher Priest
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 20 2003 GollanczF.
THE SEPARATION is the story of twin brothers. Rowers in the 1936 Olympics, they meet Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy; one joins the RAF, and captains a Wellington; he is shot down after a bombing raid on Hamburg and become's Churchill's aide-de-camp; his twin brother, a pacifist, works with the Red Cross, rescuing bombing victims in London. But this is not a straightforward story of the Second World War: this is an alternate history: the two brothers - both called J.L. Sawyer - live their lives in alternate versions of reality. In one, the Second World War ends as we imagine it did; in the other, thanks to efforts of an eminent team of negotiators headed by Hess, the war ends in 1941. THE SEPARATION is an emotionally riveting story of how ordinary people can make a difference; it's a savage critique of Winston Churchill, the man credited as the saviour of Britain and the Western World, and it's a story of how one perceives and shapes the past. THE SEPARATION was originally published by Simon & Schuster as a trade paperback, with a very small print run; it went out of print almost immediately and was never reprinted. Gollancz will publish initially as a price-promoted hardcover, as a platform for reviews and national newspaper coverage, prior to lead title paperback publication in 2004.

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Christopher Priest excels at rethinking SF themes, lifting them above genre expectations into his own tricky, chilling, metaphysically dangerous territory. The Separation suggests an alternate history lying along a road not taken in World War II. But there are complications.

In 1999, history author Stuart Gratton is intrigued by a minor mystery of the European war which ended on 10 May 1941. The British-German armistice signed that month has had far-reaching consequences, including a resettlement of European Jews in Madagascar.

In 1936, the identical twin brothers Joe and Jack Sawyer win a rowing medal for Britain in the Berlin Olympics: it's presented to them by Rudolf Hess. The brothers are separated not only by a twin's fierce need "to be treated as a separate human being", but by sexual rivalry and even ideology. When war breaks out Jack becomes a gung-ho bomber pilot, Joe a conscientious objector. Still they're inescapably linked, and sometimes confused. Both suffer injuries and hauntingly similar ambulance journeys. Churchill writes a puzzled memo (later unearthed by Gratton) about the anomaly of a registered-pacifist Red Cross worker flying planes for Bomber Command. Hess has significant, eventually incompatible meetings with both men. Contradictions are everywhere.

As in his magical 1995 novel The Prestige Priest is fruitfully fascinated by the legerdemain of twins, doubles, impostors, symmetrical roles. Churchill's double briefly appears. So does the famous conspiracy theory that the Hess who flew to Britain with his quixotic peace deal wasn't the real Hess ring true? Clearly The Separation was impressively, extensively researched. Its evocations of bombing raids--from either side of the bombsights--are memorable.

The unfolding story strands become increasingly disorienting and hallucinatory; the easy escape route of dismissing one strand as delusion is itself subtly undermined. The Separation is filled with a sense of the precariousness of history; of small events and choices with extraordinary consequences. --David Langford --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this subtle, unsettling alternative WWII history from British author Priest (The Prestige), Jack Sawyer is an RAF bomber pilot who encourages his government to distrust the peace proposal offered by renegade Nazi Rudolph Hess. At the same time, perhaps, Jack's identical twin brother, Joe, is a pacifist Red Cross staffer aiding peace negotiations with a German delegation headed by Hess. Jack's actions help shape the events we remember; Joe's lead to a truce between Germany and Britain in 1941 that results in a disturbingly familiar postwar world. Convincingly detailed diaries, scraps of published texts, declassified transcripts and more baffle a historian who tries to reconcile different realities. The brothers themselves recognize the uncertainty of motives and actions; Joe in particular struggles to believe that he's making a better future even though he realizes how much it costs him personally. Many alternative history novels are bloodless extrapolations from mountains of data, but this one quietly builds characters you care about—then leaves their dilemmas unresolved as they try to believe that what they have done is "right." (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
I enjoyed this novel immensely. Christopher Priest is a consistently fine writer, and, for me, this exceeds his two immediately prior novels, and they were good reads also ('The Extremes', and 'The Prestige'). If you have not read Christopher Priest previously I would also recommend the earlier novels 'A Dream of Wessex', 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour'.
There is always something unsettling in Mr Priest's writing - something to remind the reader that we all create a 'firm' understanding of the reality we live in, and yet we all know that we are often mistaken, deluded, fooled.... You could see this novel simply as an alternative history novel in which the outcome of World War 2 (our real history)is contrasted with a believable alternative. But it's nothing like Philip Dick's wonderful 'The Man in the High Castle' which is a post-war alternative history, because Mr Priest actually describes the war coming to an alternative resolution during the war. So there are real people in the novel - notably Winston Churchill and Rudolph Hess. And I could well believe in both of them. But the story centres on identical twins - both of them being JL Sawyer. Perhaps we were meant to get them confused, but one of the slight weaknesses for me in this novel was a failure to separate the twins adequately - well, they were diametrically opposed in their attitude to the war, but it was their mood and personality that got confused for me.
Mysteries abound in the narrative and only a very dull mind would not be actively searching for resolutions, explanations. But the story keeps turning away from possible explanations and yet keeps coming back to itself with different views of the same incidents - there's a bit of ground hog day in it!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too clever for me Aug. 24 2011
By Mme DLR
Format:Hardcover
Alternative history divides into two broad categories: those that use it as a device to tell genre stories, 'Fatherland' for example, and pure alternative histories which tend to be science fiction. 'The Separation' falls into the latter category. I prefer the former. And that's my main gripe with the book.

When I first came across it I was instantly intrigued by the hook of the Jews being deported to Madagascar instead of killed. However this is only the most minor detail in the background of the story. Nothing substantial comes out of it.

Instead this is a book of parallel histories, narratives and characters. Twins and doubles are everywhere (a theme the author is obviously interested in for those who have seen/read The Prestige). There are twins and doubles everywhere - and that's not a mistake because large sections of the book are repeated with only minor alterations. I understand how Priest is making a point about the nature of reality/parallel histories and unreliable narrators but personally I found it a bit tedious.

Something else that disappointed were the references to the extensive research of the book (both here on Amazon and the dust jacket). Again this maybe a case of me failing to manage my expectations but I assumed this meant research into the creation of an alternative world such as Harris's Berlin in 'Fatherland'. As it happens the books is full of detailed research but it's more to do with life during the war than any victorious Nazi Germany.

Take all of the above then add the fact that I didn't warm to the twins' characters nor did I much like Priest's clever but rather cold writing and I was left with a novel I struggled to finish...
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enigma wrapped in a riddle; the ideal alternate history Oct. 20 2003
By J. N. Mohlman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
Jake Mohlman
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating June 25 2010
By Hope for the Best - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Other 5 Star reviews, professional critics, and numerous literary awards speak to the excellence of this wonderful novel. One reviewer specifically mentioned the alternative history efforts of Turtledove and the like. For those who find some satisfaction in the superficiality of Turtledove and the basic, no nonsense type of writing he is known for, might do well in not taking on The Separation. It is not, strictly speaking, an alternate history, but an exploration of the nature of reality and the identity of self. This is an intellectual work, not a comic book in the style of popular "what if" science fiction. Priest is an author that challenges readers to actually think, to ponder, and to draw their own conclusions. There is no easy answer to his puzzle. This is not volume one of a multi-book series that milks every detail in an endless repetition of adjectives and populated with cardboard characters. The Separation is literature and should be approached as such by readers willing to take on the task of looking inward as they turn the pages. It is a truly fascinating book and one not to be missed by anyone who enjoys something more than the usual junk fiction that sells so that some writers continue cranking out the familiar to loyal followers. Priest and The Separation are unique, fresh, and brilliant.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't remain separated from it for longer than you have to! Sept. 17 2003
By A. G. Plumb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I enjoyed this novel immensely. Christopher Priest is a consistently fine writer, and, for me, this exceeds his two immediately prior novels, and they were good reads also ('The Extremes', and 'The Prestige'). If you have not read Christopher Priest previously I would also recommend the earlier novels 'A Dream of Wessex', 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour'.
There is always something unsettling in Mr Priest's writing - something to remind the reader that we all create a 'firm' understanding of the reality we live in, and yet we all know that we are often mistaken, deluded, fooled.... You could see this novel simply as an alternative history novel in which the outcome of World War 2 (our real history)is contrasted with a believable alternative. But it's nothing like Philip Dick's wonderful 'The Man in the High Castle' which is a post-war alternative history, because Mr Priest actually describes the war coming to an alternative resolution during the war. So there are real people in the novel - notably Winston Churchill and Rudolph Hess. And I could well believe in both of them. But the story centres on identical twins - both of them being JL Sawyer. Perhaps we were meant to get them confused, but one of the slight weaknesses for me in this novel was a failure to separate the twins adequately - well, they were diametrically opposed in their attitude to the war, but it was their mood and personality that got confused for me.
Mysteries abound in the narrative and only a very dull mind would not be actively searching for resolutions, explanations. But the story keeps turning away from possible explanations and yet keeps coming back to itself with different views of the same incidents - there's a bit of ground hog day in it! And the ending of the novel is something I have seen before too - in WH Hudson's 'A Crystal Age' - not that I saw it coming in 'The Separation' for all that. Hudson makes no effort to rationalise or justify how the ending could be the way it is - Mr Priest hangs out a technical artefact that you could configure as an 'explanation' if you so wish - an option not available to Hudson, although he could have resorted to a occult 'explanation' if he'd wished. Let me just leave it by saying in both novels that the ending is very strong.
At the end of the novel I was left wondering - perhaps there could have been a better outcome for World War 2 (not something our side is ever likely to countenance) - or at least, a less bad one.
Finally, and not with regard to the novel itself, I am left wondering why a search for 'The Separation' brings up nearly 2000 items but this book is no where near the head of the list (it's last on the list of 44 publications under 'Christopher Priest'). I realise that it is not available everywhere yet, but it is in the database of titles and it is open for reviewing. It is, also Mr Priest's most recently published novel so should become widely available soon - unless, of course, .....
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant -- but as confusing as anything can be March 22 2008
By E. Kovar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I love this book and have given it to several people who've loved it as much as I do. I'm sorry that people were let down by the reviews. One person got bored, one found the writing was horrible, and one felt it was the worst book he'd ever read.

But those reviews make sense: Chris Priest is being even more confusing than usual.

At the very beginning it does seem that "Priest posits an alternate history in which Britain signed a peace accord with Germany in 1941, ending the war." But he doesn't. He starts with a historian in that time line who's dragged in and becomes interested because as he reads the memoirs and does the research there seem to be two different things going on at the same time; he becomes more and more confused and irritated but there's also the itch to find out what is true.

Assuming that the reader doesn't just give up because things seem so muddled (and it takes a lot of patience not to) it gradually develops that the twins' time lines diverge at some point but the time lines and the brothers keep crossing. You wind up with the same scenes but as happened on one time line or the other, sometimes even a twin seeing it from his brothers time line and reacting to it. Priest is also playing with the subject of twins in general. Does Winston Churchill have someone who looks like him to go out in public and risk death? He needed to be alive to work, he had to be out there to support and encourage the people. Does the Churchill of the book use or not use a double? Which choice is the right one? Or is it even that each choice was made by a Churchill? Compound that by asking if it was the same Churchill from different time lines but overlapping?

And who, what, and when are the people at the peace talks? People are doubled, leaning one way in one time line and a different one in the other, the time lines are different depending on what people have done in the past, then compound that by doubles/not doubles interacting with each other. Throw in that people get confused, especially when trying to follow official documents that are contradictory. Is X the same person acting in far different ways or a different one with the same name, antecedents, et. al.? Etc.

For whatever it's worth there was an attempt by members of the German High Command to negotiate with the Allies to secure peace. It was to involve removing Hitler from power. In The Separation the person who was to execute it did or did not have a chance. If he did have the chance it did or did not succeed. The novel isn't about great events, it's about this or that person, who they are, how that changes, the choices they make, the results of those choices, to the point of the success/not success of that mission depending on what this or that person did as things were happening. "For the want of a a nail a shoe was lost . . . a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." But is the kingdom one where Hitler's career was ended by the Germans or the Allies? Both have advantages and disadvantages.

It's a novel that address that individuals can be evil and good; with the best of intentions do something that has a bad result; that two things can be true at once; at one and the same time -- the brothers overlapping -- believe that one thing is true and the opposite is also true, that one has to fight in defense of country, not noticing individual suffering while at the same time that fighting is wrong and what has to be paid attention to is the individual suffering.

And should one follow ones beliefs to the exclusion of anything else or modify them as things go along? In The Separation each brother believes something to be an absolute and follows that.

(Bringing that down to the most basic you believe "Be open and honest" and "Don't hurt people" What do you do if a friend has made a stupid decision? What happens if one of those beliefs, be open and honest for example, is something you consider an absolute and follow at all costs?)

Which goes back to Churchill: using a double and not using a double are both the right thing to do. Flying to attack an enemy to end the fighting, ignoring individuals, and focusing on the individuals and trying to end the fighting can both be the right thing to do. Having the absolute belief in something, honourably sticking to it and following that path to the end, can be right or wrong.

And what, the historian and others try to find out, is True?

At the end of The Separation, did the person in the ambulance live or die? He's Schroedinger's cat.

The Schroedinger thought-experiment exasperated me: I could see and agree with the point but any discussion of the actual experiment drove me nuts: just open the box already. The result is going to be either a cat that is dead or a cat that is fed so stop leaving it in limbo. Whichever result let us get on with it. Humans are more complicated. The person in the ambulance lived. The person in the ambulance died. At various points before that decisions were made, each one being made led to the result, the result had repercussions one way or the other.

The Prestige was easier but even then closing the book or watching the closing credits could leave the brain twitching: huh? And having to go through the novel, movie, or both again. The Separation has you doing that huh? shortly after starting reading.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little demanding, but that's a good thing March 31 2006
By F.T. Lawrence - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Separation is an alternate history novel by a good writer. Those who wallow in shallow examples of this sub-genre -- the books of Harry Turtledove, for instance -- will not care for this at all. What we have in this work is at least two (maybe more?) different histories presented in such a way that we weave back and forth from one to the other. Pieces fit together locally, but not globally, as in some of the art of M.C. Escher. The most extreme example would be the characters of Stuart Gratton and Angela Chipperton, who, if I'm reading the book correctly, could not exist together in the same place and yet do, briefly. There is some repetition, particularly at the beginning, but as I see it that is important to the manner in which the story is presented, as a tale told and retold, not always in the same way. One could argue that the book is a little too long in the middle, but I am normally a slow reader and yet finished the novel rather quickly. This is intelligent, challenging alternate history. Its one flaw, which is perhaps inherent, is that it really is a parallel universe novel, with the relationship between the worlds unclear -- "it was just a dream" is one way to interpret the story, an aspect I find just a little unsatisfying, and the reason for four stars rather than five. Highly recommended.
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