29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
The Separation is the eleventh and most recent novel by British SF author Christopher Priest, published in 2002 when it promptly won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the BSFA Best Novel Award and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire. For reasons that remain unknown, the British publishers tried to kill the book at birth, releasing it with a minimum of fanfare and remaindering it as soon as humanly possible. Luckily, Gollancz saved the book and released it in a handsome paperback edition in 2004, where as part of their Priest reprint range it has remained in-print and with increasing critical acclaim ever since.
Priest's novel, The Prestige (soon to be a major motion picture), is regarded as his best and most well-known book. The Separation is a book that at one moment is similar (another novel about duality and identity) and at once utterly different. It very nearly defies a plot summary, since any attempt to convey the storyline would be in itself verging on a spoiler. But I will do my best.
A historian working in 1999 becomes intrigued by a minor historical figure, a pacifist in Second World War Britain briefly mentioned by Churchill in his war memoirs. This man, JL Sawyer, is soon revealed to be one of a pair of identical twins. In 1936 Jack and Joe Sawyer take part in the Olympic Games in Berlin as coxless rowers, winning a bronze medal, but soon the outbreak of war separates them: Jack becomes a bomber pilot, tormented by the destruction he wreaks each night on German cities. Joe, the pacifist, becomes a Red Cross ambulance driver helping find survivors of the nightly Blitz on cities such as Manchester and London. Their stories are related as a series of diaries and memoirs written by both and also in (mostly fictional) historical documents relating to the period, some by such personages as Churchill, Goebbels and Rudolph Hess. Other devices come into play, particularly towards the ending of the book.
Priest is well-known for his slippery plots, pulling off narrative sleights-of-hand and 'twist' moments that make M. Night Shymalan's films look like the work of an amateur hack. Here he seems to reveal the twist very early, within a few pages (and silencing the critics who claim his books are rarely 'overt' SF). However, he rapidly pulls the rug out from the reader's feet again, and then again. Amidst the confusion generated by the shifting narrative, however, a pattern slowly emerges which seems confirmed in the extremely haunting conclusion. Some may deem the ending to be a 'cop-out' but nothing it as it seems, for the revelation apparently inherent in the book's finale does not explain events earlier in the book, leading to much greater thought being demanded from the reader to examine the truth of the story.
The Seperation, like most Priest books, hides an incredible amount of depth behind its deceptively simple, almost sparse prose. Characters are built up and deconstructed with nearly contemptuous ease in front of us. Priest captures the atmosphere of WWII Britain and the moral confusion of the reality of war with vivid storytelling techniques and the use of statistics and historical texts (real and feigned). Priest even educates the reader in areas about the war that have not been very well explored (the state of conscientious objectors in WWII Britain is not something I had previously considered).
The Separation is an extraordinary book in idea, even moreso than The Prestige. The lack of an 'absolute' conclusion or explanation for what has happened in the book may irritate some readers, but I found it extremely refreshing to read a book that demands that the reader actually think, rather than being spoon-fed the answers on a plate. It is in places beautifully written: Priest's take on Churchill is so good I was startled to find several impressive and very 'Churchillian' pieces of dialogue were Priest's own invention and not taken from any kind of historical record. In other places the theme of the book is so vast that sometimes it threatens to overwhelm the more human moments of the story (the reader is perhaps invited to furiously think "What the hell is going on?" rather than simply sit back and have the tale unfold). However, this is more likely to have just been my reaction to the story rather than an inherent problem. I would say that I found myself preferring The Prestige to The Seperation by a hair's breadth, but this may just have been brain hoisting the surrender flag. After greater reflection, I suspect I will find myself approving it the more of the two books.
The Separation is an excellent, headily atmospheric novel that forces the reader to think about what they are reading carefully. I recommend it without hesitation. This book was nearly stillborn due to the stupidity of the publishers and the literary world would be a much poorer place without it.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2010
I'm a fairly decisive person. But, very occasionally, a book has me seriously conflicted. 'The Separation' is one such novel. Priest is an interesting and powerful writer with a very individual voice. He is fascinated by the notion of an unreliable narrator - and he doesn't regard himself as a science fiction or fantasy writer. He's best known as the author of the book 'The Prestige', which was made into the successful film. Here in 'The Separation' are many of the themes that we found in 'The Prestige' - a double-hander between two close-knit people bound by ties of love, envy and eventual hatred.
Set against the background of World War II, this book explores the wartime experiences of the Sawyer twins, who had won a bronze at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Both with the same initials, their story is researched by Stuart Gratton, based on primary source material given to him by Angela Chipperton. Gratton's interest is sparked by a comment he comes across in a memo from Winston Churchill, who mentions J.L. Sawyer, who is both a conscientious objector and RAF fighter pilot. It isn't until a long time into the book, we realise that it shouldn't be possible for Angela and Stuart to meet, as they are both from different timelines. What they do have in common, is that their father is J.L. Sawyer...
And that's as much as I'm going to say about the plotline. Did I say plotline? Hm - the word tangle would be more accurate. Priest certainly weighs in on the literary end of the genre - and although I've seen the book described as science fiction, for my money it's probably the heftiest attempt at alternate history/ies I've ever read. There isn't a single alternate strand running through the book, rather a series of them. Priest constantly reprises the confusion between the twins with other major characters - Churchill has a double to perform his morale-raising public appearances and there is also confusion surrounding Hess and his identity.
As the war progress - in one timestrand, it ends in 1941 after Churchill signs a Peace Treaty with Hess - both men find the constant, bruising conflict frays at their ability to cope. They seem to surface from a nightmarish swirl into pools of lucidity, which constantly shift, throwing up alternatives. I was gripped with the need to find some resolution in this morass of confusing parallel worlds - and I give you due warning, there isn't one. Priest doesn't toss his bewildered readers any kind of lifeline. It's up to you to make up your own mind as to exactly what is going on. Is this some kind of mental hallucination brought on by the brothers' traumatic experiences? Or a dystopian view of multiple realities, all with their own grim denouement?
What Priest does provide in super-abundance, is detail. Loads of it. We have sheafs of documents from Churchill and his office. There are letters and diary entries from all the main protagonists. Joe and Brigit's isolated cottage; Jack's experiences as a fighter pilot; Joe's time working with the Red Cross - these are all described minutely. Priest's sense of the time is pitch-perfect and he obviously has extensive knowledge of what was happening during the War. Repeated phrases and events, in different contexts with different outcomes cycle and recycle through the book, making it almost impossible to keep track of exactly how many alternate realities actually surface. If you have an interest and knowledge in the period, you might like to play games at spotting exactly which point Priest deviates from the historical reality.
For me, a big problem with this book is that the twins are prickly, quarrelsome, rather aloof and not terribly likeable - despite their undeniable courage and strong moral standards. And because of the impenetrable plot, you don't really ever get a real handle on the supporting cast. Brigit, Joe's German wife and the cause of the twins' feud, came closest to eliciting my sympathy. But even her actions towards the end of the book seem rather random and unexplained. And this is the book's weak point. This is a demanding read - and on an emotional level, there isn't much reward.
However, it certainly provides much brain-food. Priest's formidable, rather cool intellect is on display in crystalline clarity throughout this book. Has he succeeded in pulling it off? My honest answer - I'm not really sure... I would have liked to care more about the Sawyer twins; I would liked a tad less complexity and cris-crossing of timelines; I found the ending overly abrupt and not entirely convincing - there were other timelines that provide a more satisfactory conclusion to the book, in my opinion. But I'm willing to bet that I shall still be mulling over this book when many others will have faded into the furniture. Particularly the malign effect of the war on the brothers, which I feel is a powerful, rather under-reported theme running throughout the book. Priest is fond of using a sudden, shocking breakdown of order as a catalyst to some of his temporal confusions in his work - and WW2 certainly provides that in spades...
So, is it a great, if flawed book? Or a good book, overloaded with too much plot or detail to make it anything more than a hefty, rather confusing read?
3 or 4.5 stars - I simply cannot decide!
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 9 August 2002
For over thirty years, Christopher Priest has been one of the most distinctive and interesting presences in English fiction. If there's any justice at all, "The Separation" should win his work a whole new readership, being a brilliantly-conceived and executed study of contingency and conscience. In Priest's hands, twentieth century history is re-made through the oddly-echoing stories of the Sawyer twins. One Sawyer is a prominent pacifist and the other a bomber pilot, but both become embroiled in a clandestine attempt to cut short the Second World War. "The Separation" has a lot in common with "alternative history" novels, exploring on its way a strangely convincing other Europe where Britain made peace with Hitler in 1941. However, what makes "The Separation" stand head and shoulders above many another "What if ...?" novel is the consummate skill with which Priest assembles his skewed history through different viewpoints and sources, every section the product of first-rate research and imaginative identification. The counterfactuals are all the more gripping for being rooted in excellently conceived and convincing set-piece descriptions of (among other situations) the 1936 Berlin Olympics and terrifying combat-flights over night-time Germany. Fans of Christopher Priest should note that "The Separation" also boasts some striking new twists on his trademark concerns about identity and how we construct ourselves out of memory and incident. Christopher Priest has produced some first-rate fictions in his time, but "The Separation" may just be the best yet.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In a variety of personas Priest creates with deftness and charm a story running from the mid-1930s to the early years of the 2nd World War. It is both a war story and a story of the background of bomber command and British Red Cross, Churchill and the Hess attempt to broker peace, all of it personalised by two young men whose lives were both scarred by events in very different ways. Joe and Jack Sawyer (both boys had the initials JLS), were identical twins. They were at the Berlin Olympics as a coxless pair and won a bronze medal. They stayed with a family known to their mother - a Jewish family - and they were well aware of some of the restrictions (lifted for the duration of the Olympic Games) to which the Jewish people were beginning to be subjected. It was Joe who decided to save Birgit, the daughter of the family with whom they were billeted, and he smuggled her into Britain.
From this point their futures diverged. Certainly Joe, the more sensitive of the twins, felt their divergence as a loss. Jack, the stronger and more down to earth of the pair was determined to join the RAF. From this point in the story, however, there is more than a mere parting of the ways. There is the story of the ME-110 chased across the English channel by Swedish planes. The horror of the Blitz, the terror of the constant sorties across Germany, many of which having little effect, other than to kill the British, Irish, Polish and Commonwealth flight crews.
This book is absolutely outstanding in its atmosphere of the war years. It is un-flashy, undemonstrative but utterly grounded in the British experience of war, particularly the experience of flying bombers and driving ambulances. Joe and Birgit marry, but when Joe is away in the Blitz, Jack, whose passion for her has never entirely gone away, finds it impossible to stay away. There are sequences following Jack over the sea to carpet bomb Dresden and Cologne, and there are sequences in the thick of the blitz following Joe, who is a Conscientious Objector driving ambulances for the Red Cross. Along the way both men meet Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess. Equally, at some points in this book there is a time-slip into another world, or perhaps a time-slip out of this one?
This being a Christopher Priest book, you would not expect just the extreme competence and confident groundwork of any situation. You would expect, and you will get, in the person of Joe, a profound psychological story; one that matches the heat and confusion nightly devastating the city of London. It is amazingly well imagined, though in its furthest reaches of imagination it is tremendously audacious. A brilliant, hair-raising book. I have just finished reading this book and have written this review on the crest of the shock-wave brought by the closing words. This is a fantastic book - I would say - be patient when it repeats itself, particularly near the beginning. There is a reason for it.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
One cannot easily describe the plot of any of Christopher Priests books, so I will not attempt to do so here. The synopsis of this book above tells about as much as one can tell without giving away too much. For this is a book full of twists and turns, of characters who are not who they seem (or who are more than they seem), of situations that get turned inside-out.
Again exploring a pair of twins (Priest is, himself the father of twins, which could explain this obsession), this book involves several pairs of doubles, of mistaken identity, of confusion caused by shifts in perception. What begins as a relatively simple story, of a writer researching a key moment in (an alternate) history, ends up being one of the most haunting books I have ever read.
I won't deny that my interest flagged at moments; the structure of the second part of the book (diary entries, letters, documents) seems dry on the surface, but each piece in this puzzle ends up having much more import than it seems on the surface.
Priest excels here in shifting from one reality to another. He never makes them obvious, and these shifts are so subtle and masterful that they sneak up on you.
Suffice it to say that this confirms my opinion that Christopher Priest is one of the finest living writers, and that he creates some of the strangest yet cloyingly attractive stories one can find. Far from his origins and label as a "science fiction" writer, Priest has almost defined his own genre.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is one of those times I finish a book and think, "Hmm, I wonder what other reviewers made of it?"
Well, quite a common thread seems to be, "I don't think I got it, but I'm sure it's really clever, so four or five stars."
The story is based around two identical twins, both named JL Sawyer, who compete for Great Britain in the Berlin Olympics and then take different paths resulting in one being an RAF bomber pilot and the second a conscientious objector, in the second world war. During the course of the war two divergent historical narratives arise.
In one version, Jack, the bomber pilot is shot down but survives and Joe, the conscientious objector, is killed whilst working as a Red Cross ambulance driver in the London Blitz. Jack is then recruited during his rehabilitation to interview Rudolph Hess, after his historical flight to Britain trying to negotiate peace. Jack had met Hess at the Berlin Olympics and because of his German mother is bilingual. Jack reports to Churchill that Hess is an impersonator and so the peace offer is rejected. In this storyline the historical narrative is the one we are familiar with (putting aside the Hess identity issue).
In the second, Jack is killed after his bomber is shot down, but Joe survives the bomb hit to his ambulance and a parallel alternative history arises in which he is part of the neutral Red Cross delegation negotiating peace with Rudolph Hess. The negotiations are successful, and in this fictional historical version Hess replaces Hitler, and Britain and Germany reach a peace settlement, resulting in an alternative history.
The problem for me is that I just don't think the plot here works.
Instead of being two historical narratives the author vastly over-complicates the plotting by presenting some of Joe's version as being a mental fantasy caused by the concussion from the bombing. Joe narrates parts of his story but then when some slightly strange things happen he awakens from a dream to find the events were not real. However, throughout the book, the two story lines intersect and events in the alternative historical account interweave in the first, in such a way that Joe appears and is observed by other in Jack's narrative. In the same manner, the novel starts with a historical author, Stuart Gratton, meeting Jack's daughter who hands him Jack's memiors. However, Stuart appears in Joe's story and has written about the alternative historical narrative from Joe's perspective, but in the future meets Jack's daughter. Again the two narratives are in collision.
I guess the author here is trying to interweave the two stories to create a paradoxical mesh of events. This sets the head spinning as the reader tries to grapple with events that cannot be reconciled, two versions of history co-existing. Some readers think this is clever, but to me it is a plot that simply doesn't work. I reached the end with a great sense of frustration at this, and re-read the beginning just to be sure!
Priest's work often deals with the psychological and perceptions of reality, and although he works this well in 'Inverted World' and 'The Affirmation', he streteches it somewhat in the 'The Prestige' with a plot that creaks at the seams, and unfortunately 'The Separation' is in the same vein as the latter.
Although, this novel does have some merits for me, the alternative WW2 history has been done before in Philip K Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle', and Robert Harris's 'Fatherland', so it might have been more original to set this against an alternative historical backdrop. The repetition, although necessary for the plot, was also rather frustrating, and it would have benefited by being a little more succinct in parts. For me, the novel was trying to do too much resulting in a bit of a mess.
The plot is comparable to the famous painting of the triangular staircase where each of the three sides is ascending; an impossible optical illusion on canvas.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 August 2011
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 (Gollancz S.F.)). 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... though I did get there in the end.
Sometimes you read a book that you know is good but you personally can't get on with it. I'm sorry to say 'Separation' is one of those. Too clever for me, I'm afraid.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 14 April 2003
'The Separation' has crept under the Priest Radar, managing to miss even magazines such as SFX. It is, however, worth seeking out and, as ever with Chris Priest, leaves you with more questions than answers.
We're in familiar Priestian territory: the nature of reality; the effects of the unseen; perspective distortions; the relationships between twins; fidelity, the meaning of fidelity, and just how nasty and brutish Fate and her tricks can be.
'The Separation' concerns the effect Joe and JL Sawyer (identical twins) have upon the Second World War. The book shifts perspective numerous times, with both twins relating their stories, but interspersed by the (conflicting) recollections of others. The book is framed as a piece of research by a historical author called Stuart Gratton, but this is a typical Priestian red-herring, and Gratton becomes an irrelevance - in all senses of the word by the time the book ends. What Priest does is to take a 'what if' scenario, turn it inside out several times, and leave you with an 'if what' scenario.
No narrator throughout the book is reliable, but every single one is utterly plausible, and clearly telling the truth as they perceive it. The central characters interchange stories, motivations and personalities, but remain distinct throughout. Neither twin (Joe or JL) is especially likeable, but their fates become increasingly poignant as they are plunged deeper and deeper into the madness of WW2. The conclusion is, like most of Priest's novels, inconclusive, and whilst this is a strength in novels such as 'The Glamour' or 'The Prestige', you are left feeling that there's something missing. A final chapter would have provided some completeness that the novel requires.
But this is a minor criticism. Priest takes WW2 and gives it a fresh perspective. Churchill is both the potent statesman and an reprehensible warmonger; Rudolph Hess is nastily sardonic and oddly vulnerable. And Priest never lets us forget the horrors carried out by both sides, and the horrors that endured. We gain a glimpse (through extrapolation of reliable documentation) what might have happened had peace resulted in 1941 rather than 1945.
What is most potent is the relevance this novel has to now, given that Britain has just participated in pulverising Iraq. And it's fascinating to see how the use of doubles throughout the story contrasts with the outrage expressed in some quarters of Mr S. Hussein's use of doubles in public and TV appearances.
The moral questions that are raised - including those surrounding appeasement (or what is judged to be appeasement), make this one of Priest's most political (and if not his most political) novels yet.
So, this is a fine, thought-provoking, gripping, and skilfully-told tale. If it ends a little abruptly and without full 'closure' (dreadful phrase, but oddly apt), it is not to the detriment of the story. And Chris Priest demonstrates, yet again, why he is this country's most undervalued and under-recognised author. 'The Separation' is Booker and Whitbread quality (but then most of his novels are), and it's a crying shame that he hasn't yet graced the shortlists.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 January 2014
I have said in my review of another of Christopher Priest's novels, that I now know I am not very clever. I just cannot understand exactly what is going on. I did wonder if it was my ill health, but I see most other reviewers feel the same.
Having said that, I do find this story very moving, not cold as some others have done. On the contrary, I was quite moved by events that happened. Yet again, as seems most likely with CP's stories, it is at the end that the surprises come, leaving me frantically back paging, trying to find where the rug slipped out from under my feet. Even if I do manage to locate this part of the story, I am still lost, in a maze, going forward.
What a mind CP has, & the ability to put his thoughts to paper in the way he does I find quite astonishing. 'Bravo' sir.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 20 October 2002
This book has everything you want from a Christopher Priest book; clear, lucid, unpretentious prose; unreliable narrators;a beautifully constructed plot which makes you more and more confused as you become more and more involved; a last page which will send you straight back to the first page;an overall melancholy or tragic feel.
One of the things Priest does really well is to explore big historical or cultural ideas by showing how they impact on ordinary lives. In The Seperation, Priest is using exceptional and historically real characters and events, but the story never becomes so epic or grand that you lose the human interest.
This book is brillant.