Book review: Dominion by C.J. Sansom

It’s Remembrance Sunday 1952... a grave, young Queen Elizabeth takes her place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, old soldiers gather for their march past and out of the massed dignitaries steps German ambassador Erwin Rommel bearing a giant wreath with a swastika at its centre.

This is the startling vision conjured up in Dominion, a dark and terrifyingly real ‘alternate history’ from the pen of C.J.Sansom, one of Britain’s most accomplished historical novelists.

The author of the Tudor ‘Shardlake’ series and the runaway bestseller Winter in Madrid returns to the 20th century as he imagines what Britain might have looked like if she had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940.

Dominion is, as the author points out in his Historical Note, just one reading of what might have happened if Churchill had failed to become Prime Minister in May 1940, when the history of the world really did ‘seem to turn on a sixpence.’

Here he envisages what might have been the catastrophic consequences – British people living under menacing, authoritarian rule with the press, radio and television under state control, the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary policemen and British Jews facing ever greater constraints.

Into this nightmare scenario, Sansom weaves a gripping and atmospheric spy story as one seemingly ordinary man – backed by a Resistance movement led by ageing Winston Churchill – becomes caught up in a dangerous plot and a deadly pursuit.

Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, Britain is being run by Nazi sympathisers like Lord Beaverbrook and Oswald Mosley, and its people are struggling to retain their traditional values.

British Jews are increasingly in danger. Forced to wear Star of David lapel badges – ‘very British and discreet’ – there are rumours that they are soon to be rounded up and ‘resettled’ in Eastern Europe.

There are also terrible stories about British subjects being tortured in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House where the Gestapo are known to have a base.

Defiance, though, is growing. Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side, and in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle forever.

Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country before the Gestapo get their hands on him.

But there are ‘Nazi fingers in every corner of the state’ and David has a secret that makes his involvement in the plot even more perilous.

Before long he, and a disparate group of Resistance activists, find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog while David’s wife Sarah is drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined.

And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, a brilliant, implacable hunter of men...

Sansom creates a believable ‘what might have been’ world by using high-profile people of the period and harnessing their personalities, predispositions and politics to persuade us that this is a Britain that could very well have existed.

Departing from the comfortably successful territory of his Tudor novels was always going to be a gamble for Sansom but he pulls it off with characteristic brio and extraordinary storytelling.

Vivid, authentic detail, fleshed-out characters and a rich, absorbing narrative provide the ‘trompe l’oeil’ framework for what is essentially a first-class thriller with a poignant love story at its heart.

A novel of powerful ideas and haunting possibilities, Dominion is one of the best books of 2012. Don’t miss it...

(Mantle, hardback, £18.99)