Christopher Priest

Reviews of THE SEPARATION (2002)

[The lives of two brothers diverge as a result of a bitter row after they have competed successfully together in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. When World War 2 breaks out in 1939, one joins the RAF and becomes captain of a bomber crew taking part in the night-time assaults against Germany's cities; his brother registers as a conscientious objector and assumes a crucial role in Red Cross efforts to bring the war to an early end. Somewhere, somehow, the course of modern history begins to change.]
The Separation

Publishers Weekly:

* [A] subtle, unsettling alternative WWII history from British author Priest. 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."

Glasgow Herald:

Himself the father of twins, Priest has embedded dualism and imposture at the very heart of this alternative history in a way that keeps readers constantly questioning what seems to be going on. Churchill and Hess are major characters, but their doubles make more than just cameo appearances, too. Priest is clearly as immersed in the period as his creation Gratton. Throughout a narrative built from diaries, wartime memoirs and official memos, his wartime feel never falters. A complex and enigmatic tale of identity, illusion and deception.

Daily Telegraph:

It becomes clear that Priest is attempting something far more intellectually ambitious than a mere alternative history. In a story entitled "The Garden of Forking Paths", Borges imagined a book encompassing all possible outcomes, an image of a universe that is a "growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times". The Separation very nearly is that book. The fragmenting narrative is – as Priest's fans would expect – superbly constructed, the prose admirably spare and elegant. In these respects he is probably genuinely closer to Ian McEwan than to the other ["Best of Young British Novelists"]. The two also share some abiding concerns – the difficulty of distinguishing between what we perceive or remember and what is really out there, sex as an arena of conflict and cruelty. The idea of time as as a function of consciousness is a dominant theme in both The Separation and, less obviously, McEwan's The Child in Time. Priest is a powerful and underappreciated writer, and The Separation is a queasily gripping and intelligent work of fiction.


The novel is concerned with the ways in which the past, and past identity, is remembered and, in many cases, reconstructed. Events here are not clear cut, nor do characters possess perfect clarity when it comes to hindsight. The exact nature of what has occurred is frequently both oblique and opaque. No one is what they seem to be – even the identity of historical figures such as Churchill or Hess remains fluid. A number of people turn out to have doubles, or are rumoured to possess them – again, a recurrent theme in Priest's work. Or perhaps these multiple and dual identities refer to the ways in which people are shaped by history. Take one path, at its most banal level, and you become this person; take another, and you are irrevocably changed. One cannot help but wonder how many discarded alternative personae litter the multiple paths of one's personal history, or histories, and this, for me, is the most disquieting legacy of this remarkable novel.

Infinity Plus:

There have been many novelistic re-creations of the second world war in recent years, but Priest's novel stands head and shoulders above them all, and does so precisely because his science fiction idiom allows him imaginative freedoms that are denied to hamstrung hist-lit. Indeed, this book is an astoundingly good piece of fiction: its narrative is gripping, its characters are involving, its prose is resonant, poetic, subtle, its overall effect is thought-provoking, haunting, brilliant. And maybe, to be fair, there is something misleading about pigeonholing it as SF. It is far too unique a piece of work to be pigeonholed. The prose is beautifully restrained, the detail precise and powerfully evocative of the period. Priest avoids easy answers, and the present state of the world brings the same dilemma back to us all. Surely Saddam's many crimes against humanity make the moral case for a war against him? But, equally, surely the lives, homes and families that would be destroyed in such a war make the moral case for not going to war? This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The 3rd Alternative (Winter 2003):

Priest's writing is spare, precise and elegant, all of which qualities help to ensure the complicity of the reader in the destabilising process. One would have thought that this preoccupation with the nature of narrative would have left little room for political and social considerations, but for Priest these are inextricably bound up with the way we tell stories and report historical events. What matters is who does the telling, whose version of events is reported, whose believed. Priest asks awkward questions, most tellingly about the role of a USA which remains a political, cultural and scientific backwater still suffering an isolationist, postwar mentality. When you consider [George W.] Bush's political world view pre 9/11 (if indeed he had any such view) in contrast to his current enthusiasm for military intervention in the internal affairs of other states, any trace of smugness at Priest's portrayal of America is quickly dissipated. The cumulative effect of reading The Separation is akin to the experience of losing religious faith. Just as geology, Darwin, the splitting of the atom and the bloodlust of the twentieth century have undermined faith in a benevolent God, so Priest's dissection of historical and fictional narratives and the forces that shape both, serves to undermine our trust in the reporting of 'real life' events. What we are left with is a striking but unsettling novel, full of vivid detail and profound speculations. In the end, we have a solipsistic narrative which not only negates the possibility of an alternate existence, but also its own. And in denying its own fictional reality, it threatens to destabilise the reality in which we - its readers - act out our lives.

Vector (January/February 2003):

In printing, a separation is one of four variants of a page, identical except that one is yellow, one cyan, one magenta and one black. Bring them together, and these four monochrome separations produce the four-colour final page. I am pretty sure that this is not a metaphor that Christopher Priest had in mind when writing his new novel, but it works. Throughout the book we are presented with separations of the pages of history, or rather one particular page; monochrome perspectives that seem to make perfect sense until we lay them one upon another and realize that the register is disturbingly off. All that we know is suddenly made to seem weird, distorted, alien. This is a technique that Priest has used before: the sudden, unsettling shift in perspective that makes reality less secure beneath our feet. But where in earlier novels this would make us question identity, here it questions the very nature of history. This is by some way, the longest book Priest has written, and the most ambitious. With its doubles and deceptions, (far more and far more intricately constructed than there is room to suggest in so short a review), with its hallucinatory misdirections and its insistence that nothing is true, nothing is real, it is a difficult book to get a grip on. But the lucidity of the writing keeps you on a clear path through all the complexities, and in the end the effort of reading is well rewarded, the daring of the author pays off to breathtaking effect.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (March 2003):

Christopher Priest's exquisite alternate history The Separation is being considered as a film, but that shouldn't stop anyone from reading it now, before Absolutely Everyone is talking about it. The Separation is an exceptionally frightening novel whose nightmare power derives from its chilling, almost clinical evocation of an historical reality with which we are all familiar, the London Blitz. Twin English athletes with a German mother, Jack and Joe Sawyer, participate in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. At a British Embassy reception following their event, one of the twins is approached by Rudolf Hess; later, both Jack and Joe help a young German Jew escape to England. What follows is a cliffhanger narrative of dual identities, betrayals, and shifting realities, as two versions of the twins' histories -- and England's, and the world's -- are woven together, like strands of DNA, to form a terrifying narrative. Priest has used doubles before to great effect, in his award-winning novel The Prestige; but The Separation trumps even that tale. Its chapters linger in the mind like scenes from a Hitchcock film, impossible to shake off; like Hitchcock's work, The Separation begs for repeated readings to appreciate the cold brilliance and execution of its intricate plot fully. A masterly novel that deserves to become a classic.

Locus (December 2002):

Centred on the date of one of the more bizarre events of WW2 -- May 10,1941, when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland on an abortive peace mission -- The Separation is gloriously awash in twins and shadow-selves. Was it really Hess, or an impostor? Was it really Churchill cheering up the roadside crowds during the Blitz, or a double? Even the main plot line centres on a pair of identical twins, who create confusion both among British government officials during the war and among later historians. And most centrally, was WW2 a conflict that ended in 1945, or in 1941, following Hess's peace mission? Priest is not merely out to show us what the latter world would have been like, but rather to show us how such a world interrogates our own, and even interpenetrates it. And in so doing, he forces us to question the most unquestionably justified war in our memory, and does some serious damage to the notion that history is made by heroes. The idea of artifacts from alternate worlds leaking somehow into our own isn't entirely original with Priest, but it's never before been treated with such gravity and intellectual complexity, and its potential has almost certainly never been exploited so powerfully. With its brilliant circularities and endlessly forking paths, The Separation is something of an astonishing achievement, the sort of novel that in a saner alternate world might well be a candidate for mainstream awards and best-seller lists. (reader review):

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 Separation, 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 brilliant.

The Independent:

We make our choices and live in the world those choices make; each of us is the subtly different twin of other selves. Christopher Priest's new novel is about those choices, their consequences, and the impossibility of investigating the truth of what we cannot know. Here, though not in a standard way, he draws on the literature of alternate worlds: history as it was, history as it might have been, history as the way individual choices manifest on a large scale. Priest builds an impressive set of imagined places and times. He knows the literature of the mass bombing raids and the debate as to their morality as well as he knows the blackout and a sceptical version of Churchill's role. Priest would argue with some force that plausibility is not the point, and he would, on the whole, be right. He needed, to go with his twins, identical in their stiff-necked quarrelsomeness and commitment, two nations in some sense mirror images of each other. For him, the quarrels of Britain and Germany are a family quarrel. This is a novel about ideas. Reality moves back and forth. Much of the book consists of letters, journals and memoirs which contradict each other and yet have equal authority on the page. By the end, we know that the historian investigating the Sawyer papers, and the woman who sells them to him, cannot exist in the same time and place. In both its versions, history is a nightmare from which one or other brother fails to wake.

SF Weekly:

There are now four great novels of World War II in the literature of the fantastic: one is a prophecy, Swastika Night (1937) by Katharine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine; and three are alternate histories: Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952), Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), and Christopher Priest's The Separation (2002). Let us hope that not only in some other world will The Separation be found.

Locus (October 2002):

Nothing about the resolutely low key, tasteful-mainstream packaging of Christopher Priest's 11th novel, The Separation, in any way suggests what the book truly is: a major work of alternate history, masterfully conceived and written, thoughtful, audacious, a stab to the heart of historical appearances. From the opening pages counterfactual energies flow with a remorseless elegiac precision. Make no mistake: The Separation is not just another respectable realist tome about World War II, but, rather, one of the finest SF novels of 2002. Of Priest's previous novels, The Affirmation (1981) and The Prestige (1995) performed this mischief the best, tying protagonists and devices of hallucination in very profound knots; but The Separation, with its elaborate grounding in the mortal realities of the Second World War, likely tops them there. No merely private nest of narratives, the new book is a testament to the moral and psychological inadequacy of the present we all inhabit. Priest's accumulation of supporting detail, his ruminations on the inherently unjust nature of war, and his deft implication that Nazi Germany would have collapsed eventually without the necessity for global warfare, take their toll; the inconceivable can be contemplated by the end of The Separation, and the delicate moral equivalence of histories, theirs and ours, is justified and sustained. This is a great, and very disturbing, achievement. By the end of this searing and eloquent book, Priest has reaffirmed World War II's nature as a people's war, dependent on choices made by foot soldiers and housewives as much as anyone else. Myths of the heroic leader, Churchillian, Hitlerian, or otherwise, lie comprehensively shattered.

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