Monday, 19 September 2011

Novel Review - The Separation by Christopher Priest

WWII novels are awash with suspense and mystery - will the Nazis win? Will the US enter the war? Did Churchill eat all the pies? The Separation plays on the mysteries of this period of time, long forgot by history, whilst also telling the story of British twins, Joe and Jack Sawyer, and their relationship with a woman.

Time to backpeddle. Christopher Priest is best known as the writer of the source material for Nolan's The Prestige, and anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of the writer. Both The Prestige and The Glamour enthralled me and challenged me, although The Extremes left me unsatisfied. I've got a lot of experience with Priest and I am rather biased towards his work.

The Seperation starts, in characteristic Priest fashion, with a framing story. Stuart Gratton is a writer of historical novels, and he uncovers an intriguing story: JL Sawyer, a man who flies with the RAF and is conscience objector, is talked of by Churchill. He delves at first into a written account by one of the twins and then into a mixture of material that is a written account by the second twin combined with a collection of other documents that pertain to the twins.

There's no other way to put this: the first 150 pages of this book are kinda boring. Certainly, it starts off intriguing, but the story about the twins who go to Berlin intercut with RAF hijinks is a bit longer than it really should be. Historical novels do not interest me, and I did not feel that the central romance was necessarily although that compelling. Certainly, as ever, there is a lot to be read between the lines in the way that the author focuses away from certain things and understates certain elements, but this is not pronounced enough to really create mystery. I like his writing and I did see certain interesting or unusual things in there, and repression and unspoken emotion certainly seeps through, but really the main problem here is that the section is about fifty pages too long.

When you get past section two, however, it's business as usual for Mr Priest. A creeping sense of the unnatural takes the narrative by the scruff of the neck and obfuscation is rife. Everyone is unreliable, as is our experience of the novel; all par for the course for Priest, but he keeps it fresh by taking structural complexity further, and adding lots of third party evidence outside of our feuding unreliable narrators. As ever with Priest, narrative structure is the star of the show and the way that any "truth" value becomes blurred is key. In this respect, the latter part of the Separation perhaps eclipses any of his other books. What exactly happens is never clear, and this is the main draw of the story.

Perhaps, this is what the novel is about. It's a historical fiction that looks at real events, conspiracy theories and how unclear things become when we have varied and contradictory perspectives of it, as there inevitably will be when events are so big and widespread. It's about history itself, and how we make sense of it, but also about the way our perspective of war is shaped by hindsight, and not as clear cut as history books would have us think. There's also the strain relating to twins, and sepataration. Really, it's up to yourself to decide what the book is about and figure out how to piece it together. Although Priest had a metaphor in mind, he's as keen to give us hints and ambiguity that let us form different and new ideas from the novel.

The ending disappointed me a bit, and perhaps the ambiguity here is a little frustrating. It's more enjoyable on an intellectual level than an emotional one, as the main characters are hard to care for as a result of the novels structure, but there is something that does resonate about many of the scenes and the love story. It's not a character driven piece, but neither is it a novel of poor characterisation.

I've used a variety of terms that suggest this is a formula book by Priest, but it is only in a good sense. Priest is playing to his strengths, and by giving us very different themes and genres - an alternate history, set in WWII - he gives us something that is also unlike anything else he has written before whilst being exactly the same. It's a very worthy novel for those with strong attention spans and an inclination towards things that are mentally stimulating. Enigmatic and complex and structurally a joy.

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