Dominion is not the worst novel I have ever read, but it must come pretty close.
In fairness, the author, CJ Sansom, has said that he was being treated for cancer as he was writing the book and it is possible that at times, his mind was not fully on the job. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of any visible sign of an editor.
This is a long, rambling and repetitive novel that seeks to imagine an alternative 1950s Britain in which, after a brief military skirmish in 1939-40, peace was made with Germany and Britain went forward as a peaceful, but unoccupied, ally of the Reich. Sansom goes to enormous length to create this world, but it is not credible. We are expected to believe in Lord Beaverbook as Prime Minister with the likes of Oswald Mosely and Enoch Powell as cabinet ministers. This, I think, misunderstands both men. Mosely was no politician, and Powell was no appeaser.
We have more bizarreness. We are expected to believe in a rise in anti-semitism across Britain with a series of anti-semitic laws and a rounding up of the Jews. This again misunderstands 1940s and 1950s Britain where there was really not a significant anti-semitic feeling, but quite a lot of antipathy towards the Irish.
Natural conversation seems to have died too. In its place, people make statements of historical fact, or repeat stories they have heard on the news, or proffer political opinions. Two men in a bar discuss their support for Government race legislation but express doubts about its likely efficacy rather than discuss the football scores. In a piece de resistance (pun intended – you’ll have to read the book), we have pages long anti-Scottish National Party polemic being placed in the mouth of a mental health nurse, despite the story taking place in England with English people. We are told that the SNP are Nazi sympathisers and thugs and anti-English racists. Not only does this sit badly with the story and context, it jars with the benefits of self-determination being displayed by the characters’ friends and relatives in Canada , New Zealand and the United States .
So to the story itself. A man (Frank) discovers a secret from his brother (Edgar) and this leaves the top brass of all nations wanting to capture him alive. It’s never quite explained how the Americans, the Germans and the British Resistance know that Frank knows the secret; nor why the Americans would want him so badly when they already know the secret. Indeed, those readers with a memory will recall that everyone knows the secret because it was in the newspapers. It seems that CJ Sansom remembers this about 50 pages from the end too as there’s some pretty hasty backtracking and flimsy excuses put forward to explain the inexplicable.
Our reluctant hero, is joined by a motley crew of civil servant spies and other Resistance sleepers, all willing to expose their cover and lay down their lives to save poor Frank, a man of no value to them and with all the survival instincts of a lemming. All the time, they talk in newsreels and political manifestoes, telling us things we already know. It is never enough to see an even from one perspective; we need to have it two or three times.
The Germans, despite being merely friendly allies, seem to have their Gestapo roaming the streets lifting people and dragging them off to the dungeons of their embassy (Senate House - the second tallest building in London as we are told more than once). Except, there’s a bit where it is explained that the Germans can’t actually arrest or interrogate people for fear of creating a diplomatic incident. In which case, why do they have a frequently used suite of torture chambers in their embassy. The rationale changes with the wind. Gunther, the main German, would give Mystic Meg a run for her money. He has a perfect intuition of the moves made by the resistance. He has a 100% record of guessing their motives and thought processes. He even manages to intuit that the people he meets in a flat must (a) have been to visit Frank in hospital; (b) must be in a photograph that looks like it has been moved in Frank’s flat; and (c) are going to escape by submarine. He knows all this by instinct, yet he and his colleagues have been unable to trace the fugitive Winston Churchill who is holed up in Chartwell, his well known stately home in Kent .
This novel goes on and on and on. Half of it is a very protracted chase scene that depends on coincidences, lucky breaks, rescuers appearing in the nick of time. And the other half is backstory about the two dimensional characters who are about to chase each other. It’s hard to care.
If you have a spare 20 hours, donate them to charity. Or repaint your dining room. Or visit a relative you haven’t seen for a while. But please don’t do what I did and waste them reading Dominion.