Social historians of the future may look back at the reading habits of this era and conclude that we were almost exclusively interested in Nazis and Nordics. Certainly there seems no diminution in these twin tastes. Widowland (Quercus, £14.99) by C.J. Carey (a pseudonym for the writer Jane Thynne) is the latest Nazi-related novel in a crowded field, and its author wisely opts for a different, if not altogether original, conceit. An alternate Britain which lost the war has featured in fiction before — notably in Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Len Deighton’s SS-GB — but even with such celebrated predecessors, Carey more than holds her own. The world of her novel is richly detailed, full of atmosphere and — on the terms of its own make-believe premise — entirely plausible. Write what you know has been responsible for some of the most fatuous books ever composed; Widowland is a stellar example of what can result from writing what you imagine.
The novel is set in 1953, the 13th year since a one-sided armistice has been established with the German regime that now controls all of Europe. Britain is a protectorate, and Hitler’s pet ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, is the protector. King George and his immediate family have vanished, rumoured to be the victims of a Romanov-like slaughter, and the reinstalled Edward VIII is king, awaiting his own second coronation. An ageing Adolf Hitler is due to arrive on an inaugural visit to the UK.
The book’s protagonist, Rose Ransom, works at the behest of the state, rewriting classics of English literature to reflect a ‘purer’ Aryan ideology, though she is increasingly captivated by the originals she is meant to bowdlerise. War and forced labour have depleted the numbers of men until women outnumber them two to one; yet women are subject to a punitively rigid caste system that makes Margaret Atwood’s hierarchies seem benign.