“In my mind I saw or heard or remembered the deafening sound of the engines, brilliant flashes of light in the dark sky around us, a large bang that was repeated whenever I moved my head, a shock of cold as the windscreen in front of my face was shattered […], voices on the intercom, the huge and terrifying surge of the sea, the cold, the terror.”
This alternate history tale of identical twin brothers won the BSFA Best Novel award in 2002. It is set before, during and after WWII, with most of the narrative focusing on the twins’ experiences during the extensive bombing carried out by both countries. One twin, Jack, is an RAF bomber pilot and the other, Joe, is a conscientious objector who drives an ambulance for the Red Cross. Both twins share the same initials, J.L. Sawyer.
“What you want, what you crave, is to be treated as a separate human being. You want an independent life.”
I am keeping the details of this book to a minimum as I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of anyone reading it for the first time. It is the second Christopher Priest book that I’ve read, the first being the mind-bending Inverted World. Both books share Priest’s fascination with the tenuous nature of reality, how easily it can shift and change depending on who is experiencing it.
“It was as if I had slipped suddenly back in time, out of one reality into another, but which reality, now, was the one I should believe in?”
The Separation is a meticulously researched book. The attention to historical detail might put some readers off, but it is so deftly written that it rarely feels like a history lesson. Priest’s descriptions of the bombing raids on both England and Germany are so vivid that it is difficult to stop reading these gripping and terrifying scenes. I often found myself completely immersed in the story, losing track of the time in my “reality”.
The characters feel real, too. The more I got to know them, the more I felt myself caring about what happened to them. Despite their obvious similarities, the twins are individuals with their own personality traits and their own ideas. It can get confusing at times as to exactly which twin is which, but that is part of the identity game that Priest is playing. Readers who have read or seen The Prestige will be aware of the tricks the author can play with doubles.
When I began this book, I wasn’t sure where it was going. It was so different to Inverted World, but that was written almost thirty years before The Separation. I was limiting my thinking by looking for the “sci-fi,” instead of relaxing into the story and allowing it to find me. This is a book I want to reread. I’m so glad I found it, mainly thanks to the BSFA winners list. It comes very highly recommended.
Here’s a great summary-quote on The Separation by the writer Elizabeth Hand:
“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… 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.”